JuJu Smith-Schuster did not have a great 2019. One year after being named team MVP, the third-year receiver struggled through injury, the pressure of being a number one receiver and having Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges as the quarterbacks of record instead of Ben Roethlisberger for much of the season.
His stat line was a very pedestrian 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns. Career lows, by far, in all three categories. Going deeper, his 26 first downs plus touchdowns, his 60% catch percentage and 7.9 yards per target were all down compared to his rookie and sophomore campaigns. Just as alarming, his drop rate nearly doubled, from 3.6 to 7.1 percent. Compared to his Pro Bowl 2018 year, the only stat he improved upon was yards per touch, which inched up from 12.8 to 13.1.
So what do we expect from Smith-Schuster in 2020? There have been plenty of people expecting a big bounce back year from the popular former-USC product. Hunter Homistek at DKPittsburghSports makes the case that he’s still an elite receiver despite his struggles last season. Pro Football Focus forecasts an 88 / 1005 / 5 slash line for JuJu in 2020, which wouldn’t be too surprising with a presumably healthy Roethlisberger back under center. He’s even a 20/1 favorite to lead the league in receiving yardage at BetOnline, the 16th highest of any receiver.
It would be very challenging to parse out the negative effects on Smith-Schuster’s numbers solely due to the Steelers’ quarterback play in 2018 compared to 2019, but we can at least look at some of his underlying numbers.
In 2018, Smith-Schuster had 111 catches on 166 targets for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns. His advanced numbers weren’t quite as impressive with 8.6 yards per target (38th in the league), an 84.7% true catch rate (41st) and a 50% contested catch rate according to playerprofiler.com. The team’s quarterback rating when he was targeted was 97.6 (50th). Slightly more concerning was his target separation, which ranked only 91st in the league.
2019 was a different story. Without Brown for defenses to concentrate on and with no Roethlisberger, his numbers plummeted.
Smith-Schuster had just 42 catches on 70 targets for 552 yards and three touchdowns.
However, there are a few caveats. First of all, the Steelers were not an offensive juggernaut in 2019. The team’s pass plays per game fell from 44.6 per game (tops in the league) to 33.9, which was 27th. Without Roethlisberger for most of the year, the team only managed to put up 2981 passing yards compared to 5008 the season prior. After having the most passing attempts in the league in 2018 with 689, the team managed just 510 in 2019.
Furthermore, Smith-Schuster battled injuries for much of the season and only participated in 573 (58%) of the team’s offensive snaps compared to 960 (86%) in 2018 and even 704 (64%) his rookie year. That’s 387 fewer snaps from 2019 to 2018. On that metric alone you would expect to see a marked decrease in his production. Running the numbers, that alone would equate to a decrease in catches from 111 to 67 and yards from 1426 to 856. Smith-Schuster also had many fewer opportunities to catch the ball as his targets decreased nearly 58% from 166 in 2018 to just 70 in 2019.
The advanced stats don’t show any large drop off from one season to the next. In 2019 Smith-Schuster yards per target were down as his 7.7 was just 61st in the league and the team’s QB rating when targeted was a paltry 79.1 (82nd) but his 80.8% true catch rate (58th), contested catch rate (50%) were very similar to 2018 and he actually improved in average target separation, from 1.14 (91st) to 1.40 (68th).
Which brings us back to our initial question, what to expect from JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020? With the emergence of Diontae Johnson and the offseason signing of tight end Eric Ebron, the team should field a very balanced passing game. That should decrease the pressure on Smith-Schuster to be a star. He may not be an elite receiver on par with a player like DeAndre Hopkins or Michael Thomas, but there’s little to suggest that he can’t be a solid first option in the passing game with a healthy Roethlisberger and a bevy of offensive weapons around him.
Look for a bounce back year for Smith-Schuster in year four–it is a contract year after all. Just don’t expect a return the ridiculous numbers he put up in his sophomore campaign.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
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.”
Film Study: Conservative Game Plan Holds Steelers Back
The Steelers squeaked out a victory from the jaws of defeat on Sunday by defeating the Denver Broncos 26-21. It was a hard-fought battle as the Steelers allowed the Broncos to creep back into the game in the second half. Turnovers and penalties were two big reasons as to why the Steelers kept them in the game. However, the conservative offensive play calling was as well. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has received due criticism before. Today, that criticism was once again well deserved.
Fichtner’s Questionable Calls Shackles Ben Roethlisberger
The biggest problem with Fichtner was his conservative play-calling once the Steelers got into unfavorable second down positions. On 2nd and long, the Steelers should be using the playmaking ability and arm of Ben Roethlisberger and the skillsets of their weapons to help get into manageable third-down situations.
On a 2nd and 18, these draw plays should not be in contention. One was in the very first quarter when the Steelers should be gunning for a quick start, not a first possession punt. It was after a fumble, but all Fichtner should be doing is trying to get the offense back on track. A run on second and long does not accomplish that. Then, with a two-score lead, this is a classic example of a team taking the foot off the gas pedal. Living in fear of turnover at this point is not a valid point to the contrary, especially when the passing game had been working especially well in the first half against a battered Broncos secondary. More potently, this is playing right into the Broncos strengths. Their front line, even without Von Miller, is strong and capable. It made no sense to go with a draw here on 2nd and long. Even attacking the Broncos underneath here would have worked to some degree. Anything is better than a run at this point.
On the ensuing play, the point is driven home. The Broncos have sold out for the deep pass at the sticks and all that is left is a dig at the line of scrimmage. As a result, the Steelers end up punting here. There was no guarantee that the Steelers would have scored points even if they did take the air. However, shackling Roethlisberger when he has shown the capability to beat the Broncos secondary with ease is a questionable call. If the Steelers do convert and end up scoring a touchdown or even a field goal, the entire outlook on the game is changed. Analytics have shown aggressiveness is how teams have the best probability to win games. In situations like this, that should be followed.
The Steelers’ screen game was perhaps the worst part of the game today. There was nothing going for them all day and yet Fichtner continued to call them. The screen game is nothing more than an extension of the running game. It, yet again, is something that puts Roethlisberger’s best strengths in a bind and handicaps drives. There were promising drives that showcased the quick passing game as a way to slice through the Broncos defense with ease. Even more so, Chase Claypool’s big play made it known that it was possible to push the ball down the field.
This screen play may highlight the worst of the day for the Steelers. The pre-snap look they get is just not favorable for this play. They are outmanned three to two in a blocking situation. More importantly, the Broncos are playing with even spacing and have a great angle to the boundary to make this play on JuJu Smith-Schuster. They are expecting a quick pass here and the safety at the top of the formation is ready to drive down if he sees any quick passing game concepts. That is exactly what happens and the Steelers are stopped short on a critical 3rd and 2. It is questionable why they did not check out of this anyways, but given the struggles of the screen game all day, Fichtner’s call of a screen in a pivotal point is puzzling.
Fichtner has to learn to let Roethlisberger cook and use his arm talent. The quick passing game is more than fine. Honestly, screens are not all bad, but they should not be calling as many as they did today when they were not working. If they are to be called, there has to be more pre-snap action to mess with the defense’s eyes. It was that conservative play-calling that lulled the Steelers offense and in part gave the Broncos a window to creep back into the game as a whole.
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
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.