There’s no doubt who the Steelers have increasingly relied on in the big moments — and we’re not talking about Antonio Brown. It’s been none other than JuJu Smith-Schuster, who continues to show he’s a budding NFL star. His game has evolved from a year ago, and today he’s become an even stronger receiver in traffic. But more importantly, he has become a more nuanced route runner, which has elevated him into the top-15 WR category.
The trend of his big games and reliability surely didn’t miss a beat when the Steelers headed to Cincinnati and knocked off the Bengals. Sure, he had his early struggles, like those the two drops — including this one.
This drop and his inability to track the other ball were his only two really bad plays this week, otherwise, he was golden. Gotta grab this one, but it does not really matter on this play. pic.twitter.com/4yPAjFynd5— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
His other drop was on a deep pass which went right over his outstretched hands and should have been a huge play. This showed not just a bad job of tracking the football, but this particular drop was either because he heard footsteps or it just slipped out of his hands.
But as for the rest of the game, JuJu was excellent. He showed his ability to get great releases off of the line and his improved route-running ability since last year.
JuJu Smith-Schuster had a huge game against the Bengals. Breaking it down a thread:— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
Great job on the crosser to get the CB to open his hips and then cut inside across. Should not catch it against his body, but a good route and catch. #Steelers pic.twitter.com/K0DJOzp0Iu
The crosser isn’t a hard route to run, but it’s an incredibly intricate route requiring good release and a great break as you cut across the middle. JuJu executes this well, as he runs inside and turns the defender’s arms and hips upfield. This gives him more than enough separation coming across the middle. He nearly dropped this pass, as he held it with his body but, regardless, it was a good route and a solid play.
Honestly, I don’t think we need to question JuJu’s hands. He drops one every now and then, but he also has incredibly strong hands in traffic. In addition to that, he knows exactly how to win a jump ball in traffic. All of the Steelers’ receivers seem to know how to do that, but JuJu is particularly adept at it.
What a play. It is a wheel route and he gets the outside leverage, but Dennard recovers well. Great ball skills to go up and attack that ball and at the catch point. Strong hands, great catch in traffic, JuJu is a star. pic.twitter.com/gJvcirSfQD— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
What an amazing play he makes to come down with the ball. He wins outside leverage and gains a bit of separation, but Darqueze Dennard comes back inside to close the gap with solid mirroring of JuJu. The key part of this play is the ball-skills of JuJu and his ability to high-point the football. He goes and gets it. His strong hands allow him to secure the ball with ease and make an incredible catch. Later, he showed off his ability to catch in traffic again.
Hello JuJu. Nice out route to get separation and then a great catch to go up and get that at its highest point. Strong hands has he goes to the ground and good body control as well. pic.twitter.com/Jg6aIiZpYc— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
I feel bad for McRae because he has good coverage on the play, but this is just a super catch by JuJu. He wins with an incredibly sharp route outside, which gets McRae to bite inside, and then he goes up and makes a great catch by high-pointing the ball. You’ve got to love the incredibly strong hands shown here.
An underrated aspect of JuJu’s game, however, is his zone awareness and ability to find soft spots in the zone. He has incredible awareness of this, and his overall timing with Ben Roethlisberger has been amazing. He and Ben always seem to be on the same page and Ben clearly seems to sense when No. 19 will be breaking open on any given play.
What a great job by JuJu to find the soft spot in the zone and then turn around immediately. Good catch and this was a huge play of the game. Ben and JuJu have great chemistry. pic.twitter.com/NVj4Jk7hEV— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
The reason this works so well is simply because of the timing and JuJu’s awareness of the weak zone he’s looking at. He knows immediately that he’s wide open and turns around to signal it. That’s what allows JuJu to make this big catch. I’d like to see him develop some moves after the catch, because he’s not particularly great in this aspect right now, but that’s a minor point.
He does the same thing by cutting off his route early on a hitch.
Just a little inside curl and JuJu finds the soft spot. Good recognition of where he had to go and solid route. Good catch away from his body. pic.twitter.com/c71yu28x9D— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) October 14, 2018
Again, this is something a lot of people take for granted, but it’s great recognition to get to the middle of the field and flash for Ben to hit him. He catches the ball away from his body to make a really nice reception. He’s extremely aware of his surroundings in the open field every time.
JuJu Smith-Schuster might be in only his second season, but he’s already so polished and nuanced, that he ranks among the top-15 receivers and should be considered a star in the league. We can only hope that he continues his progress because he’s still only 21 years old. It’s scary to think of what lies ahead for this young man.