This offseason was spent debating whether or not JuJu Smith-Schuster was ready to step into the role of a team’s top wide receiver. How much did Antonio Brown help in Smith-Schuster putting up 1,400 yards in his second NFL season? Through six weeks, the naysayers of Smith-Schuster are going to feel good about their position.
Smith-Schuster is on track for 66 receptions, 907 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. That is a far cry from 111 receptions, for 1,400 yards and seven touchdowns. Heck, that is closer to his rookie season of 58 receptions, for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
Has Smith-Schuster regressed this poorly? Obviously it is tough to track and trust his per-game metrics when two games had a quarterback change halfway through, and he has played in two quarterbacks’ NFL debuts.
While it is fair to argue that Smith-Schuster stepping into an alpha role should mean that he is able to produce no matter the quarterback, there still is plenty of reliance on the ball thrower, no matter how good a wide receiver is. Still, something is off. What has been the issue for Devlin Hodges, Mason Rudolph, and Smith-Schuster?
The true difference is just volume. Last season he was targeted 166 times. This season he is on pace to see just 101 balls his way. Smith-Schuster has higher yards per reception and yards per target rate than the year before.
He has created more with less. Smith-Schuster has always been best at creating after the catch. This season he averages 6.5 yards after the catch, which again is up from 6.1 yards last season. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he creates two more yards per reception after the catch than expected. That number is higher than 0.5 yards above expectation last season.
Smith-Schuster has also been more efficient down the field. The average depth of target on passes to him is 8.7 this year, which is slightly up from 8.4 last season. Smith-Schuster has a RACR of 1.03. RACR measures how many receiving yards a player creates for every air yard thrown at him. Going over one means that you are taking advantage of the passes coming your way. Last season, Smith-Schuster posted a 0.99, meaning he was creating about what was expected of him.
The issue with that is that while the team is targeting him further down the field, he is not getting as many downfield targets. 25% of the team’s air yards have gone to Smith-Schuster. James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Donte Moncrief, and Johnny Holton all have at least 12% of the team’s air yards. Last season Brown had 38%, Smith-Schuster 26 %, and Washington had 15% as the only players over 12.
The Steelers are looking for a complementary piece to Smith-Schuster. They know that an outside threat down the field can open the middle up for Smith-Schuster to do what he does best. In searching for this option, they have taken away from Smith-Schuster seeing more.
That also came down to the trust that Roethlisberger had in Smith-Schuster and Brown. He was willing to force the ball to those two down the field, with confidence in himself and them. While Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster worked on their timing, Rudolph and Hodges worked with the secondary wide receivers. Last season Smith-Schuster had a 79% catchable pass rate, which is down 74% this year.
It is fair to note that Smith-Schuster has seen his average separation per target drop a bit. He averaged three yards of separation last season which is down 2.5. This is not alarming, as Brown averaged 2.6 yards of separation last season. That is what happens when you have more attention to you. However, while a quarterback like Roethlisberger sees less than three yards of separation and trusts himself, the younger quarterbacks may not have that same confidence. Adding the lack of timing with his quarterbacks to the shifts in coverage and it becomes easier to target Diontae Johnson, getting 3.4 yards of separation and Washington with 3 yards of separation.
So, Smith-Schuster is creating more with the ball in his hands, is creating more downfield, and is creating more than an expected wide receiver would in his situation.
The idea would be that the Steelers take note of this during the bye week with the intention of getting the ball in the hands of Smith-Schuster. After shuffling in wide receivers early, Johnson has taken over the second receiver job. Adding a consistent second threat can help open things up, and as Johnson continues to take advantage of the lesser coverage, safeties will begin to gain respect for the rookie.
On top of that, the team should be set with Rudolph going forward at quarterback. Shuffling three quarterbacks, playing a game with a featured wildcat formation, and seeing a UDFA make his first start on the road is not easy. There should be more consistency moving forward, even if it is not Roethlisberger, trust should form between Rudolph and his receivers.
Rudolph has taken steps in every start, and should only grow with repetitions. Without the shuffling at quarterback, and with a secondary threat emerging, there is still a chance for Smith-Schuster to pick up the volume he was expected to see and finish with a better season than he is on pace for at the moment.