When JuJu-Smith Schuster indicated he wanted to play more on the outside on Wednesday, it was met with lots of discussion towards Smith-Schuster’s role in the 2021 Steelers offense. However, perhaps even more perplexing is just who the Steelers would pull off the field if he and Ray-Ray McCloud are to get on the field more.
In order to see what the Steelers would be missing with Smith-Schuster on the outside instead of in the slot, there has to be context added. First thing’s first, even a small drop in slot snaps would be significant for Smith-Schuster. He ran 88% of his total routes on the season from the slot alignment and his 513 routes run out the slot in 2020 led the NFL. He played almost exclusively in the slot position during the 2020 season and his 108 targets from the alignment led the NFL.
Simply, Smith-Schuster played a lot of time from the slot position. That means the Steelers would have to make significant considerations to their personnel to get him playing time outside. However, what Smith-Schuster meant to the Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger as a check-down option can’t be replaced.
Over the entirety of the 2020 season, Smith-Schuster amassed 23 first down receptions on either third or fourth down. That led the NFL. In the same situations, he caught four touchdowns, which was good enough for second-most in the NFL. Roethlisberger talked about loving Smith-Schuster as that safety blanket on third down, and it is no secret as to why he believes that. Smith-Schuster racked up 58 yards after contact on these plays, also second in the NFL in 2020.
In other words, it really does not matter who is in the slot for the Steelers on early downs. However, when those key downs come to fruition, Smith-Schuster has to be in the slot. There is too much to replace there, and he was far too valuable to not employ out of the slot.
Now, on that critical micro-scale, Smith-Schuster is a weapon and a half. He has sure hands and can use his size and physicality to separate and make combat catches. However, just on a macro scale, it is clear how valuable Smith-Schuster was to the Steelers from the slot.
His nine touchdowns are the most of any player from the slot in 2020. His 85 receptions from the slot were the most in the NFL. Unfortunately, this is where a conundrum comes in for Smith-Schuster. He was only 10th in overall receiving yards from the slot. Moreover, he ranked a measly 18th in the NFL in intended air yards. The Steelers were not using Smith-Schuster down the football field. Still, most of this was not his fault.
This is one of the biggest issues with the Randy Fichtner offense, however. The Steelers failed to attack the middle of the field on a consistent basis. More importantly, they failed to attack the deep middle of the field. Ben Roethlisberger only threw 18 passes past twenty yards to the middle of the field. He threw nearly a whopping 47 passes of over 20 yards to the boundaries, however.
Fades and deep passes to the outside are consistently one of the lowest percentage passes in the NFL. Roethlisberger threw an on-target ball only 42.5% of the time. That is 20 of 47 passes. Meanwhile, he threw an on-target pass to the middle of the field 55.5% of the time, good enough for 10 of 18 passes. Roethlisberger’s on-target throw percentage of 55.5% to the middle of the field is about league average to slightly above average. His on-target throw percentage of 42.5% is below league average. It is clear the Steelers are missing out on a fertile area of the field here. No one hurt more from this than Smith-Schuster.
This inability to get downfield targets is likely one of the main motivations for Smith-Schuster’s move to the outside. However, just taking a look at his downfield numbers from the slot, and it is clear that Smith-Schuster was miscast. While he is a reliable chain mover, he is also a reliable downfield threat. On more vertical-oriented routes from the slot, Smith-Schuster registered an impressive 19 receptions for 289 yards and five touchdowns. He led the NFL in touchdowns from the slot on these routes despite only receiving 23 targets in these situations. These routes include posts, double moves, wheels, fades, go routes, deep overs, seam routes, and back shoulder fades.
It is alarmingly clear that Smith-Schuster must be used as a vertical threat in the middle of the field. Now, this is not just a threat on those vertical routes. Routes like deep overs are where he can excel on a horizontal plane, but further down the field. With a pitiful 5.5 average depth of target in 2020, it is clear this has to go up significantly.
So, what is really the answer as to how to use Smith-Schuster in 2021?
Well, it is clear the Steelers have to use him in the slot at least 70% of the time, and on almost all third and fourth down scenarios. It is simply stated that Smith-Schuster is far too valuable as a gritty chain mover. However, he can still get some reps on the outside. Still, to satisfy Smith-Schuster, using him as a downfield weapon for his benefit as well as Roethlisberger’s seems like a natural move. That is one area Matt Canada has to work upon.
Smith-Schuster is a polished, impressive talent. The Steelers have to know they have a good football player that they painfully miscast last season as an underneath check-down option. Whether the Steelers can use Smith-Schuster down the middle of the field on a vertical plane more often is yet to be seen, however, it should be a natural move given his success here.
All stats cited are courtesy of and according to Sports Info Solutions.