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Analysis

Has QB Play Been the Only Factor in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Statistical Downturn?

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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.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.

However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.

It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.

That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.

So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.

Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.

The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.

With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.

Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.

At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.

But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.

They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.

“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.

“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”

Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.

Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.

“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.

There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.

The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.

This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.

Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.

“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.

Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.

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