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What are Steelers’ Top Slot Options with JuJu Smith-Schuster Out?

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Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will miss the rest of the 2021 season, according to NFL Network, after undergoing surgery on his injured right shoulder. It’s the latest in a series of injuries for the Steelers at wide receiver, as the mixed-up position group has had nearly every regular miss at least some time this season.

Diontae Johnson missed time with a knee injury. Smith-Schuster had previously missed a half a game with a rib injury. Chase Claypool returned Sunday from a hamstring issue, and James Washington didn’t play against the Broncos due to an injured groin.

So what will the do without Smith-Schuster, potentially for a significant amount of time? Here’s what they did the first time he was out this season:

Smith-Schuster suffered a rib injury just before halftime of the Steelers’ Week 3 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

In that game, Ray-Ray McCloud filled Smith-Schuster’s shoes, taking a team-high 38 snaps out of the slot. James Washington played there 13 times. Chase Claypool (seven snaps) and Cody White (two) also dabbled on the inside.

On Sunday, it was more of the same, with McCloud leading the team in slot reps, followed by Claypool. Diontae Johnson and White also filled in.

The Steelers have made it an ethos this season to have every receiver able to play in any position, something that Smith-Schuster made it a point to emphasize in his return to the Steelers this offseason, as he didn’t want to be locked into a pure slot role once again.

“Anybody in the receivers room can play anywhere on the field,” Johnson said Monday.

While McCloud has the traditional slot receiver skillset, and will likely play there a lot without Smith-Schuster available, Claypool has been productive in those opportunities he’s been given.

If Washington returns to full health, it would be hard to argue against the Steelers’ best three receivers being Claypool, Johnson and Washington. If they want to deploy that troika, Claypool in the slot might be the best fit.

His 59-yard catch-and-run splash play against the Broncos came out of a slot alignment, as was his touchdown reception, and it’s clear that Claypool can win from the slot when the Steelers scheme him into free releases.

The Steelers also have one other option they haven’t mined yet. Former Washington wide receiver Steven Sims has been on the practice squad. He played 443 snaps in the slot in two years in D.C., the first of which came under current Steelers receivers coach Ike Hilliard.

Sims is a likely candidate for a practice squad elevation this coming week, to serve as the No. 5 wide receiver, especially if Smith-Schuster lands on the injured reserve list.

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