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An open defense of Pittsburgh Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster

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The Steelers No. 1 WR has become a target for fan frustration.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cleveland Browns Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Recently there has been a lot of negative buzz about JuJu Smith-Schuster. Even his defenders admit that he had a bad season in 2019, and a lot of people want to take that bad season as the real JuJu Smith-Schuster, as evidence that he can’t be a #1 WR, and that the Steelers offense doesn’t have any star power outside of a QB that was drafted 16 years ago.

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. There are a lot of good reasons to believe that JuJu Smith-Schuster will be a super-productive WR again in 2020. To start, let’s look at Ben Roethlisberger in his short 2019 campaign.

While Ben Roethlisberger was struggling, he wasn’t having a hard time getting the ball to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Against New England Smith-Schuster accounted for 78 yards, the 6th highest total the Patriots allowed all season, and the 2nd most in the first ten weeks of the season, when the Patriots were on pace to be the best defense in NFL history.

JuJu Smith-Schuster was producing with Ben Roethlisberger at QB, but what about when Mason Rudolph took over?

Through week 5, with Mason Rudolph at QB.

The numbers aren’t great for any of the receivers in those games, but if you look at the percentage of passing yards, JuJu Smith-Schuster was accounting for just under 30% of team passing yards, which is a really good share.

If we take that 29.4% of team passing yards and multiply it by the 2019 final total of 2981 passing yards, it comes out to 876 yards, that doesn’t seem like #1 WR territory.

But if you take that same percentage and multiply it by the passing yards the Steelers had in 2018, you get 1472 yards, more than Smith-Schuster actually recorded in 2018.

Receiver stats are always dependent on team passing stats, Antonio Brown’s highest percentage of team passing was 35%, 35% of the 2019 Steelers passing game would have been 1043 yards. Antonio Brown had 490 more yards than that in 2017, because the offense was better.

There’s a good counter-argument to this, that a great WR would boost the team’s passing game, but I would respond to that by pointing out the 2016 season, when Antonio Brown recorded the lowest totals between 2013, when he became the #1 WR, and his last year in Pittsburgh, 2018. In 2016 Antonio Brown’s receiving yards dropped almost 400 from his average the three previous seasons and dropped a full yard per target. In 2017 both his total yards and yards per target bounced back to where they had been.

The problem wasn’t Antonio Brown, but the offense around him, as the team’s WR depth fell apart and ended with Antonio Brown playing across from Cobi Hamilton, who would start 8 games for the Steelers in 2016 and record a total of 1 catch outside of that season.

As bad as Cobi Hamilton was, the gap between Martevis Bryant and Cobi Hamilton pales to the drop-off from Ben Roethlisberger to Mason Rudolph to Devlin Hodges. Against the best pass defense in the NFL a not very good Ben Roethlisberger put up 276 yards, the most the Steelers threw for in 2019. In the second game, as his elbow made it clear he couldn’t play with it anymore, Roethlisberger put up only 75 yards in the half he played, with JuJu Smith-Schuster accounting for 27 of them.

The Steelers QBs would not reach 240 passing yards in a game the rest of the season, and only three times would they throw for at least 200 yards. If JuJu Smith-Schuster had continued to produce like he did the first three weeks for 16 games, he would have amassed 1296 receiving yards. That’s the pace he was on, even while facing both the #1 and #2 passing defense of 2019 in New England with DPOY Stephon Gilmore covering him and the San Francisco 49ers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster injured his toe late in week 1, and continued to produce. Versus Cincinnati in week 4, he would play the 2nd fewest snaps since his breakout game against the Lions his rookie year, and be targeted even less in a runaway Steeler win. The next week in Baltimore the Steelers would lean heavily on Smith-Schuster, where he would account for 37.7% of team passing, the lone receiving TD and a ridiculous 27.9% of the Steelers entire offense. That game will be remembered most for his fumble at the end, but that game is a blowout loss without Smith-Schuster carrying the offense.

Against the Chargers with Devlin Hodges at QB, JuJu Smith-Schuster would only account for 7 yards in a game where the Steeler wide receivers accounted for a combined 30 yards on 9 targets. The next week was the bye week and JuJu Smith Schuster would put up 103 yards and a TD against Miami after a week of rest. He would not be much of a factor the rest of the season.

Injuries and the QB situation wrecked a season that had started off great for JuJu Smith-Schuster. He would end up missing games after sustaining multiple injuries against Cleveland, and while he would return for the final two games, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Devlin Hodges could not connect on anything, with 8 targets resulting in 6 yards gained and an interception. In the short time Mason Rudolph returned in week 16, Smith-Schuster caught 2 of 3 targets for 22 yards.

If he is healthy, and the quarterback isn’t Devlin Hodges, there’s no reason to doubt JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020.