JuJu Smith-Schuster was a highly productive receiver through his first two seasons, and in his third was on pace for 1100 yards before nagging and Devlin Hodges limited his production. In 2020 Smith-Schuster didn’t have a great statistical season, but was one of Ben Roethlisberger’s most reliable receivers, catching over 75% of balls thrown his way. This past week was a different experience, as Smith-Schuster only recorded 2 catches on 8 targets for 11 yards.
That 25% catch rate is the lowest Smith Schuster has ever posted, and the only time Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster both played and Smith-Schuster had fewer than 2 receptions was Week 1 of 2017, when in his first game the young wide receiver was not targeted. Those 11 receiving yards are the fifth lowest total of Smith-Schuster’s career, ranking behind his first NFL game, the 38-4 beating of Cleveland last season when he played less than half the snaps, and two games when Devlin Hodges was the quarterback.
It is worse than the numbers though, because Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster left big plays on the field, drive changing and game changing plays.
Let’s look at the film to see what went wrong.
Steelers vs. Packers 1st quarter, 3:27
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
This is their first incompletion of the day. This is either a case of Smith-Schuster running this route farther upfield than Ben Roethlisberger expected, or a throw missed low. If you watch Ben brace for the hit at the end I lean toward the latter. That pressure and hit come from the player Najee Harris is responsible for picking up. Harris is a fantastic runner and receiver, likely the best player on this offense right now, but he has struggled a lot in pass blocking.
There’s more to this play than just the QB and WR struggling to connect. Take a look from a different angle.
I don’t know how having both arms over the receiver and your feet off the turf doesn’t equal interference. The corner is clearly making contact early, and leaning on the receiver while swatting at his arms.
This was third down on the Steelers second drive, a three and out that led to a Green Bay touchdown.
Steelers vs. Packers, 2nd quarter, 12:42
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.
When the corner stumbles you can see the potential for a big play here, if the throw hits Smith-Schuster as he comes out of his cut. To get a better view, we need to check a different angle.
Ben Roethlisberger has a clean pocket, and look at the right side of the screen here, at the amount of attention Najee Harris draws. Harris draws three defenders as a potential runner on this RPO and as a receiver after it’s clear he doesn’t have the ball.
This is an RPO the Steelers ran in 2020, and defenses would sit on the slant route. Najee Harris is so much threat that teams don’t do that now. And this should have been a really good gain. The throw is in the right spot too, it’s just late. If Roethlisberger hits Smith-Schuster in stride he is going to be clear of the linebacker and corner, and is going to pick up a good gain before the safety gets to him.
This was on 2nd and 6. On 3rd and 6 the Packers got a strip sack and recovered the ball, leading to another Packer touchdown and a 14-7 Steeler deficit.
Steelers vs. Packers, 2nd quarter, 6:40
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
That would have been a touchdown. Unfortunately they didn’t connect and the Steelers would settle for a field goal. the defensive back gets a quick pull on Smith-Schuster’s arm as he passes him to disrupt the timing, but I also want to look at Ben Roethlisberger making this throw.
Ben Roethlisberger is stepping into this throw and really pushing the ball with his shoulder rotation. This one probably could have used a little bit more touch on it. I also think those steps may show a little bit of thinking slipping into his game. He was late on a lot of throws, and I think his work on fixing some issues with his mechanics has him thinking a bit, and that is going to cause little problems with anyone’s game.
Steelers vs. Packers, 3rd quarter, 7:17
JuJu Smitt-Schuster is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
I talked in a film room just over a week ago about Ben Roethlisberger not taking these shots, or leading them outside into the defense.
He doesn’t on this play, he has Smith-Schuster past the deep safety and the corner is on the outside shoulder, and he takes the shot.
Let’s look at a different angle for it.
First, really good pass protection on this play. Dan Moore Jr. and Kendrick Green both stand out in a positive way here, and that is a welcome sight.
You can see the corner is trying to take away the sideline throw from the start, defenses haven’t been respecting these seam routes. JuJu Smith-Schuster is given the inside release, but he doesn’t just take it, he widens the route, driving the defender farther outside and opening that window even larger.
The problem here is his receiver joins the defense in expecting Roethlisberger to throw this ball to the coverage.
You can see Smith-Schuster is preparing to fight for a ball that he expects to be underthrown and too far outside. When Ben Roethlisberger leads him perfectly, he’s out of position to make the catch.
This is not being on the same page, and it took away what would have likely been a touchdown.
There are a lot of factors that have gone into the Steelers offense struggling, the offensive line is a big one, Ben Roethlisberger having problems with his mechanics and dealing with pressure have been another.
But in this game we saw the offensive line improving, we saw Ben Roethlisberger take a good deep shot he hasn’t been taking. In week 5 the Steelers need to keep the momentum going with the offensive line improvements and give the quarterback and his receivers a good chance to get on the same page. It’s crazy that with all these missed plays, and a 10 point swing on that botched offsides call, the game wasn’t significantly worse on the scoreboard.
While I don’t think the Steelers are a good team, or even really close to being good, they also aren’t horribly far off. If, and that is a really big if, they can keep improving and find some of the cohesion this offense has lost, they can get there. We’ve seen Mike Tomlin coached teams do it plenty of times before.