JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2019 season was a let down to everyone. His Sophomore season, where he eclipsed over 1400 receiving yards, was long gone by the end of the 2019 season. Smith-Schuster lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in week two and then dealt with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges’s up and down play for the remainder of the season. It never helps to have injures either, as Smith-Schuster played with an ailing turf toe injury and sprained MCL throughout different points of the season. All in all, he finished with just 552 receiving yards and three touchdowns.
Smith-Schuster’s season has been the point of debate. Was the effect of losing Antonio Brown that big? Is Smith-Schuster mostly to blame? Were the circumstances surrounding the season the downfall of Smith-Schuster’s play?
The answer is a little bit of everything in all of those. However, if he is to rebound in 2020, his success will not just be tied to his personal play. Instead, budding young star Diontae Johnson, who led rookies in receptions and broken tackles last season, will be a key factor in Smith-Schuster’s success.
Exploring the Impact of Antonio Brown
This is where Antonio Brown comes back into the equation. Brown was a special talent, obviously, and defenses had to take note and respect that talent. However, the reason he was so important and valuable was that he altered how defenses played. The most dangerous receivers in football create lots of separation and burn defenses after the catch. Brown did that on a consistent level with elite route running and elusiveness in the open field.
For example, this play works really well to illustrate what Brown’s impact was. In a 3×1 set, the backside assignment is not usually the focus, especially in a Cover 3 scheme that Atlanta is deploying. What the threat of Brown does is shift that safety over and open the seam right up for Smith-Schuster. Brown created opportunities for other receivers around him, including Smith-Schuster.
In that 2018 season, Smith-Schuster’s absurd production was helped by an elite receiver across from him. He also had his future Hall of Fame quarterback in Roethlisberger. These are just some of the factors that allowed Smith-Schuster to catapult into stardom with that breakout second year.
How Diontae Johnson Fits in the Picture
Now, enter Diontae Johnson. In a world where there is only one Antonio Brown, Johnson may be the closest thing a team can get to Brown without getting the man himself. After an impressive rookie campaign where Brown broke tackles and burnt cornerbacks with crisp routes and high-level functional athleticism, the prospects are looking up for the youngster out of Toledo.
Johnson can act in a similar way to Brown. Not only was part of Brown’s impact the fact that he could win vertically and did, but Johnson proved he could do the same last year. Johnson ran a 2.89 yards per route last year when aligned on the boundary. In 2018, Brown posted a similar 2.91 yards per route when aligned on the boundary. He was getting vertical and had numerous big catches downfield.
Now, what that will do is take the pressure off Smith-Schuster. With teams focusing on the threat of an easy separator in Johnson, it will allow Smith-Schuster to work in one-on-one situations more often. Defenses will ahve to alter their gameplan away from Smith-Schuster and onto Johnson more or get burnt. With his skill set, that should allow Smith-Schuster to potentially thrive.
Can JuJu-Smith-Schuster Bounce Back?
With all that is given above, is Smith-Schuster actually going to rebound?
Well, that is all dependant on a few key events occurring. For one, Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster, and Johnson must be healthy. Second, Johnson has to take that step to be an even more significant threat than he was last year. That means fighting through contact better and getting rid of fumbles and drops. Lastly, Smith-Schuster himself has to improve. While, yes, there were factors, Smith-Schuster’s five drops were too many.
Still, there is encouraging news with Smith-Schuster. He will move back to the slot for the most part in 2020. That is his comfortable position since he is best working with lots of space and off the line of scrimmage. He has never been a guy to dismantle press coverage with great releases. In addition, the big, physical Smith-Schuster will be allowed to body smaller slot cornerbacks and safeties in mismatches. He is at his bet using his physicality as a weapon and can be the dependable middle of the field target. Over his first two years in the NFL, no one had more receiving yards from the slot than Smith-Schuster.
With the added bonus of a Brown-like force and even another emerging vertical presence in James Washington, the middle of the field could be the honey hole for the Steelers offense in 2020. If that is true and defenses have consistently been worried about getting cooked deep, Smith-Schuster is going to have a field day.
He may not be a top echelon wide receiver one like some thought, but with some help around him, Smith-Schuster can become a dangerous weapon if not held in check. Johnson only helps to ensure that Smith-Schuster may get run free more often in 2020.
Mic Drop: Antonio Brown Suspended, Steelers Coverage, Keys to Season
Mike Asti discussed a gauntlet of topics, including the announcement of Antonio Brown’s suspension, the keys to the upcoming season and who’s facing the most pressure. Asti also pulled back the curtain and explained the perimeters to covering the Steelers in the midst of a global pandemic like COVID-19.
Giants LT Nate Solder Opts Out of 2020 Season
New York Giants left tackle Nate Solder has opted out of the 2020 season, he announced Wednesday on Twitter.
Solder cited the health of his family as his main reasoning to sit out this year. His son Hudson has been battling cancer for the last four years, and he is a cancer survivor himself. He and his wife Lexi also have a newborn, their son Emerson who was born this spring.
“With fear and trembling, we struggle to keep our priorities in order and, for us, our children’s health and the health of our neighbors comes before football,” Solder said in a statement.
Solder is one of the highest-profile players yet to opt out this season. Other notables include New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Marquise Goodwin. Both players also have newborns at home and referenced preexisting conditions in their families.
While Solder’s absence will be a loss for the Giants, it will be the Steelers’ gain. Pittsburgh opens up the 2020 season on the road against the Giants at MetLife Stadium.
Without Solder, the Giants may be starting two rookies at tackle when the teams meet on Sept. 14 in first-rounder Andrew Thomas and third-rounder Matt Peart. That is far from an ideal scenario when T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are coming off the edge, a duo that combined for 26 sacks a year ago.
So, Nate Solder, the Giants LT, has now opted out of the season.— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) July 29, 2020
Andrew Thomas is a rookie on the other side. Matt Peart, another rookie, may be the day one starter now too.
TJ Watt and Bud Dupree are licking their lips looking at that Week 1 matchup for both of them.
Solder is the fourth-highest paid left tackle in the league, according to Spotrac. He was set to make $9.9 million in base salary this year, and count $19.5 million against the Giants’ salary cap.
Former Steeler Dr. Myron Rolle Says it is Unsafe for NFL Season to Start
Former Pittsburgh Steelers safety and current neurosurgeon Dr. Myron Rolle says it is unsafe for the NFL season start, and that more time is needed before professional football can return in full.
Joining CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Tuesday night, Rolle expressed his concerns as players around the league arrive at team facilities for training camps amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He thinks the best option is to postpone, or even cancel the season all together.
“I do not think it’s safe to return right now,” Rolle told CNN. “I think the NFL should delay the sport or cancel it this year to allow the wonderful women and men on the front lines to really get ahead of this pandemic and make it safe for everyone to come back to the sport.”
Rolle says the safest path for football to return requires a significant reduction in the numbers of cases across the country. While some states have found a way to slow the virus, that is not the case elsewhere, with hotspots in Arizona, Florida and Texas still raging. Rolle added that football is not a sport that necessarily lends itself to social distancing.
“When you have states that are hot beds and players coming from these places, I think it’s very difficult to sort of say, ‘I want to social distance,’ in a sport that’s inherently close,” Rolle explained, citing the “need to be cohesive in the locker room and in the huddle and walk-throughs close together.”
“It’s actually encouraged to be physical. It’s encouraged to have hand fighting at the line of scrimmage to tackle a player,” Rolle continued. “And as a football player, if you’re thinking about trying to keep yourself safe in the midst of a game that inches matter, one step too slow, one step too late, that’s the touchdown. That’s a win versus a loss.”
Rolle also called out the NFL directly, saying that if they really are the American institution and community leader they claim to be, they should be setting an example instead of trying to be the exception. He wants the league to “be a leader at the forefront and put the players’ safety and their families’ safety as a premium.”
“If the NFL wants to be part of the community, I think it needs to be responsible and think about what is actually happening in the community right now,” Rolle said. “A pandemic happening and infection rates going up and hospitalizations occurring, PPE at high demand.”
Drafted in the sixth round out of Florida State back in 2010, Rolle spent time with the Tennessee Titans and Steelers before leaving the NFL to attend medical school in 2013. He is currently a third-year neurosurgeon resident at Massachusetts General Hospital.
While the coronavirus situation across the U.S. does not seem to be showing much improvement, the NFL is moving forward as planned. Players arrived at training camp this week, and the league still intends to kick off the 2020 season on Sept. 10 between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans.