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.