In Week 9 of the 2020 season the Steelers faced the Dallas Cowboys. JuJu Smith-Schuster had played every game, but had been on the injury report and sat out every Wednesday practice from week 2 to week 8, week 9 was his first full week of practice since the season opener.
It would turn out to be his best game of the season statistically, but it certainly didn’t start that way.
1st quarter, 10:56, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom, Chase Claypool is second.
Look at the three defensive backs to the bottom of the screen for the Cowboys, at the snap Ben Roethlisberger knows that high safety has to take either Smith-Schuster or Claypool, and when that safety comes up to guard Smith-Schuster he has Claypool 1 on 1 deep.
1st quarter, 2:31, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.
The tight end, and running back come off the snap looking to block, Smith-Schuster and James Washington to the top of the screen run the defense back then look to block. This whole play is setting up the drag to Diontae Johnson. This play was on 3rd and 16, it gained 6 yards.
Smith-Schuster for a lot of the season was effectively relegated to being a decoy and a blocker. In 2018 Randy Fichtner took over and started running his offense. Antonio Brown instantly struggled, because Fichtner’s offense has every receiver run routes and lets the quarterback find the open man. The problem is that style of offense allows the defense to take away your best players with greater ease, and the offense becomes dependent on the other players to win their matchups.
In 2018 that led to a fantastic season from JuJu Smith-Schuster, in 2020 Smith-Schuster was the receiver defenses were most dedicated to taking away, and he struggled to get good targets.
2nd quarter, 14:51, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Watch Smith-Schuster’s head, he watches the safety. The defense is determining his route on this play, and the determination is a slant to Chase Claypool while Smith-Schuster turns into a blocker. As teams figured out this offense you can see why two main staples showed up in defensive game plans against the Steelers. First, a hook defender to take away the slants underneath the safeties, and second, to eliminate the constant drag routes, they would drop a defensive lineman a few yard deep to defend the drag. When Randy Fichtner’s contract was not renewed, it was because his offense not only failed to utilize the best players, but also was predictable, allowing the defense to tell receivers which routes to run and then defend those routes specifically.
2nd quarter, 13:40. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen.
Smith-Schuster’s first catch in week 9 was a typical route for the Steelers best receiver. It’s second and three, run your most reliable receiver three yards and convert.
2nd quarter, 3:46. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the bottom.
His other most common routes were these simple stop routes. This one is a four yard route that Smith-Schuster adds 3 more yards onto.
Smith-Schuster was reliable and still valuable to the Steelers, but this isn’t the best way to utilize a player who boasts the teams best deep ball catch rate and is tied with Hines Ward for the most 60+ yard receptions (6) for the Steelers in the last 25 years (Antonio Brown has 4).
3rd quarter, 2:13. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top of the screen, the inside receiver in the bunch.
The Steelers would periodically run a play designed for Smith-Schuster, like this wide receiver screen. You can see Smith-Schuster’s yards after catch ability is still there, he just didn’t get a lot of plays designed to get him in space in 2020.
3rd quarter, 1:28. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top of the screen.
Later in the second half, the Steelers turned the offense over to Ben Roethlisberger, and you get a route like this one, Where Smith-Schuster makes a nice first step outside to gain the lane he wants, then cuts inside for an easy twenty yards.
3rd quarter, 0:14, JuJu Smith-Schuster is to the top of the screen, behind Chase Claypool in the stack.
We also got this nice two level attack on the sideline. As soon as the outside corner turns and deepens his drop because of Chase Claypool’s route Roethlisberger hits Smith-Schuster for 9 yards on a first and 15. This led to a score to start the 4th quarter, pulling the Steelers to within 4 points of the Cowboys.
4th quarter, 15:00. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top.
That’s a good playcall by Ben Roethlisberger and a fantastic job by JuJu Smith-Schuster to set up the safety for that cut to the middle, and of course, Smith-Schuster powers his way into the end zone to finish the play.
Check out that second cut.
That’s a nasty move, and the defender does a good job just to keep his feet and get back in the play, only to get dragged into the end zone. That’s not bad defense, that’s a great player being great.
It is increasingly unlikely that JuJu Smith-Schuster will return to the Steelers in 2021, and while he will be missed, the last two years he has suffered through a season of poor quarterback play and an offense that let defenses easily relegate him to a decoy, no matter how well he ran his routes.
It stands out to me in hindsight that Antonio Brown blew up, JuJu Smith-Schuster was seriously limited and negative body language started showing up from a lot of receivers since 2018. Taking what the defense gives you means the defense gets to choose who you throw the ball to, and if they know how to dictate receiver routes, they are going to shut down your passing game. The Steelers ended up increasingly relying on Ben Roethlisberger to run the offense, and now have turned the job over to Matt Canada.
The sad thing is we aren’t going to get to see JuJu Smith-Schuster in that new offense. We saw what he did as a rookie under Todd Haley, we saw what he did when defenses focused on stopping Antonio Brown in 2018, and we’ve seen the limits of Randy Fichtner’s offense. Now we’ll get to see what he can do on another team.