The last year and a half of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s football life has been a crazy ride, from the drama with Antonio Brown toward the end of last season often involving him as his production closed in on Brown’s, to the exit of Antonio Brown leaving Smith-Schuster the task of filling the shoes of one of the most productive WRs of all time, to the death of his position coach Darryl Drake, a man he was very close to, culminating with the saga of 2019, an injured Ben Roethlisberger, ineffective #2 and #3 WRs who would both end up cut in the season, two inexperienced starting QBs, and a series of injuries that would cost him a quarter of his season and leave him ineffective for a decent chunk of the time he was active.
When the season ended with the Steelers #1 WR unable to lead the Steeler offense enough to stop a 3 game slide out of the playoffs, JuJu Smith Schuster found himself 3rd on the team in receiving yards with the worst stats of his career in every category.
But that’s not the whole story, so let’s look a little deeper at JuJu Smith-Schuster’s stats, and the different factors involved in his season.
Ben Roethlisberger took almost half a season to warm up to JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2017, when through 7 games JuJu had only 26 targets despite producing 231 yards and 3 TDs on those targets. Only twice in his first 7 games was JuJu targeted at least 5 times. After his 97 yard TD against Detroit in week 8, things changed for the young WR, in the next 7 games Roethlisberger would target JuJu 53 times for 686 yards and 4 TDs. In 2018 that would continue into 2018 and into the start of 2019, with Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster hooking up for 78 yards on 8 targets in a terrible loss to the Patriots and a few catches the nest week against the Seahawks before Ben would leave the game, and the season to rehab his ailing elbow.
If we look at Ben Roethlisberger’s passes to each of his WRs for 2019 we can see how JuJu’s start to the season with Ben at QB looked good.
In 2018 Ben Roethlisberger had a 94.9 QB rating when passing to JuJu Smith-Schuster. If you take JuJu’s yards per Ben Roethlisberger pass attempt and extend it to the NFL average team pass attempts for 2019 (558) you get 945 yards. In six quarters with his normal QB, JuJu Smith-Schuster was on pace for a 945 yard season.
That’s a small sample size, but a decent tool for looking at the early trajectory of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season. One of the major things that has to be factored into that small sample size is that Ben played his only full game against the Patriots, who ended the season with the best pass defense in the NFL. Not just the best in 2019 either, the best team QB rating against in the NFL since 2009, with a lower passer rating against than both the 2008 Steelers and the 2013 Seahawks great defenses.
If we look at games against the Patriots, JuJu Smith Schuster had the 5th highest receiving yards (78) against the Patriots in 2019 of any WR, and the second highest before week 12, when teams had started to figure out the Patriots defense a little better. After the Patriots had largely shut him down in 2018, Smith-Schuster bounced back with a very solid game against one of the most successful passing defenses of this millennium with an injured Ben Roethlisberger.
Rudolph, Injuries and Hodges
After Roethlisberger was shut down for the season JuJu Smith-Schuster would do just fine with Mason Rudolph recording 50 yards in the second half of the Seahawks game and 81 yards and a TD against the 49ers in week 3. The 49ers were the #1 pass defense by yards per game of 2019, and ranked 7th in QB rating against, while the Seahawks finished 9th in QB rating against despite allowing a lot of yards. At that point in the season JuJu Smith-Schuster had played 2 of the top pass defenses in the NFL and one defense that wasn’t very good, but wasn’t awful either. With a banged up Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu put up the 5th most receiving yards the Patriots would allow and with Mason Rudolph in his first start, JuJu Smith-Schuster had the 8th most receiving yards the 49ers would allow.
At that point of the Season, Smith Schuster was averaging 81 yards a game, a pace that would end up at 1296 yards if he could have maintained it for the season. Sadly after a quiet week in the RB led win over the Bengals we would find out that Smith-Schuster had a toe injury. After a week without practicing Smith-Schuster had a good game against Baltimore, with 75 yards and a big TD, but that would be overshadowed by a costly fumble in overtime that handed the Ravens the ball in Justin Tucker’s range.
JuJu Smith-Schuster would have his best game of the season against the Dolphins after a week of rest in the bye week, but nagging injury, increased defensive focus, declining QB play and some costly drops would lead to only 81 yards on 14 targets in weeks 9-11, which ended with a knee injury and concussion against the Browns. Smith-Schuster would return in week 16 with the Steelers offense badly in need of a spark, but JuJu Smith-Schuster and Devlin Hodges were never able to produce much together, with a total of 35 yards on 13 targets in Hodges 3 starts with JuJu playing. That part makes sense as in camp and the preseason Hodges had worked with Diontae Johnson and James Washington, who were the 4th and 5th WRs at the time, but had almost no time practicing with JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Looking beyond the total stats, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s disappointing 2019 is more of a story of a season that went wrong than a player that couldn’t handle being a #1 WR. In part 2 we’ll look at film to try and draw a more detailed picture of what happened to JuJu, looking at both his route running and his timing with the Qbs he had throughout the season.