While JuJu Smith-Schuster struggled with injury and production in 2019, the film shows that he has the traits and skills necessary to be the teams No. 1 WR going forward. While there will likely be a lot of talk about whether the Steelers need to add to the WR group, Steeler Nation can rest assured that the team has a star WR that can handle the job at the top of the depth chart.
In my previous post I covered JuJu Smith-Schuster’s stats from 2019. In this post I’ll focus on his film, and show that not only was he productive when he had the opportunity, he continued to show the traits of a number one WR.
JuJu Smith-Schuster entered the 2019 season on the road facing the Patriots, a team that shut him down in 2018 by locking Stephon Gilmore on him 1v1. The Patriots would use the same strategy in 2019, and would win the game easily. That doesn’t reflect the job JuJu Smith-Schuster did in that game though, as Smith Schuster was easily the best player in that game for the Steelers offense.
Week 1, 1st quarter, 11:16, 2nd and 6. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the WR to the top of the screen.
Stephon Gilmore is the 2019 defensive player of the year and the best CB in the NFL. Gilmore excels at the position with elite athleticism, change of direction and the ability to physically dominate opponents. On this play Gilmroe lost in both physicality at the point of contact and in change of direction and it gave Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers an easy 7 yards against the strength of the opposing defense.
Week 1, 2nd quarter, 3:37, 3rd and 10. JuJu Smith-Schuster is lined up to the bottom of the screen.
A big 3rd and 10 as the game is threatening to get away from the Steelers. Smith-Schuster gives a small hop then explodes upfield, and then makes a wickedly sharp cut to the middle of the field in-between the LBs and safeties, and Gilmore is again helpless to do anything as the Steelers easily convert the down.
The Steelers lost to the Patriots in embarrassing fashion, but JuJu Smith-Schuster had a strong game with 78 yards, including 43 yards against Stephon Gilmore, the most yards he’d give up to one receiver during the first half of the season.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster started the season strong with Ben Roethlisberger, Roethlisberger would only last 6 quarters of the season before shutting it down and having surgery.
Leading the young offense in Ben’s absence
In weeks 2 and 3 Smith-Schuster wouldn’t just lead the Steelers in receiving, he would gain more yards than the other WRs combined, with his longest gain coming on this TD against San Francisco, the second longest pass play the 49ers gave up all season.
Week 3, 3rd quarter, 5:54, 3rd and 4. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the inside WR in the trips formation to the bottom of the screen.
Again Smith-Schuster wins at the point of contact, slapping away Akhello Witherspoon’s hands and creating space for a completion that JuJu Smith-Schuster turns into a TD. The important thing here is how easily and quickly Smith-Schuster dispatches the defender, he doesn’t fight through the defender, but just beats him in one quick motion. Witherspoon isn’t a top corner, and with Smith-Schuster’s ability to play any WR position, it forces the defense to always account for him, because defending him with lesser CBs puts the team at risk of giving up a big play.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster is not a blazingly fast player, he has 6 of the Steelers 9 longest plays from scrimmage in the last 3 years, and most of them are similar to this play, one really good move against an inferior defender and he’s gone. PFR game play finder goes back to 1994, and since then, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 6 plays of 60+ yards is tied for the most 60+ yard plays from scrimmage by a Steeler. Hines Ward also has 6, and behind those two are Mike Wallace and Martevis Bryant with 5 each, Antonio Brown had 4.
In three seasons JuJu has as many 60+ plays as Hines Ward had in his career, and more than any other Steeler in the last 25 years. The criticism that JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t have the 40 time to be a big play threat, and thus isn’t a #1 WR doesn’t hold up at all, because he is already one of the most prolific big play WRs the Steelers have had in the last 25 years.
With a toe injury following week 4, JuJu’s season would slow down, but he was still contributing, and would lead the Steelers in receiving yards in 5 of the first 7 games, as his acceleration suffered, he relied even more on his physical play.
Week 10, 4th quarter, 2nd and 11. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the WR closest to the bottom of the screen
On this play Smith-Schuster beats Jalen Ramsey with a good slant, and this play shows how good Smith Schuster is at keeping his body in position to block the defender from the pass. The cut on his slant route is sharp, and leaves no room for Ramsey to recover and get in front of Smith-Schuster to attack the pass.
After the Cleveland injury
JuJu Smith-Schuster was knocked out in Week 11, and would also suffer a knee injury. He would miss the next 4 games. Smith-Schuster would return for two of the worst offensive performances of the season and with Devlin Hodges under Center, would not record much in the way of statistics. In week 16 and 17 combined Smith-Schuster would record 28 receiving yards, and 22 of those yards were in the short span of week 16 when Mason Rudolph returned to the field.
Week 17, 1st quarter, 3rd and 9. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
Here JuJu Smith-Schuster again wins with physicality, taking the defender’s contact inside the 5 yard window and using it to drive the defender back another 5 yards before suddenly releasing outside, creating room for a pass. Hodges is under pressure when he throws, and he turns away from the hit, and the ball carries with the turn and leaves Smith Schuster diving for the ball, and he was unable to pull it in.
After a promising start to the Devlin Hodges, JuJu Smith-Schuster relationship in week 4, when they connected for 38 yards on 3 targets (with a fumble after the third catch) Hodges and Smith-Schuster would struggle the rest of the year. In Hodges 3 starts with JuJu Smith-Schuster active the 2 would connect for 3 receptions and 13 yards on 10 targets. When Mason returned against the Jets, Smith-Schuster caught 2 of 3 targets for 22 yards.
JuJu Smith-Schuster showed the same traits in 2019 that he showed in his first two seasons. he wins physical battles with CBs, he makes sharp cuts in his routes that create space, and he can combine the two to beat even the best CBs in the NFL. He is built to be a high volume possession receiver, and yet he continues to be the most prolific receiver at breaking big gains this franchise has had in a quarter century.
That’s a number one receiver. If he can avoid injury and the Steelers have a more stable QB situation in 2020, expect JuJu Smith-Schuster to bounce back and put up more than 1000 yards.