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Trying to make sense of what the Steelers’ offense will look like in 2021

With JuJu Smith-Schuster re-signing, you have to ask, what are the Steelers thinking?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Steelers roster is starting to come together, there’s still the 2021 NFL Draft and the possibility of maybe one significant free-agent signing, but, for the most part, the core of the team, and especially the offense, has most of the pieces it will have in 2021. But with what the Steelers are doing, I’m sitting here shaking my head wondering what they are planning, and I’m not a fan of the answers that make the most sense.

Eric Ebron isn’t Heath Miller

To start this dive into the Steelers offense and personnel decisions, let’s start with a tweet from Rischad Whitfield, The Footwork King.

“The Footwork King” works with a lot of top NFL players, Odell Beckham Jr., Eric Ebron in this film, Joe Haden is a regular as well. He’s accusing the Steelers of misusing Eric Ebron by using him as an in-line tight end so much last season, a position where you can’t really use a good release, because you are getting off the line in traffic, and often engaging defenders or throwing a chip block before running your route. Eric Ebron’s chief value is his route running, he’s not an elite athlete, he’s just really good at running routes for a guy his size.

And that TD against the Texans he brings up?

Week 2, 2nd quarter, 5:09. On this play Eric Ebron is lined up out wide, furthest to the sideline.

Look at how the second step of his release has the corner moving back and inside, giving Ebron the lane he wants, and then look at the amount of space he has to make that catch. His release gives him the lane, his strength, size, and timing on committing to the ball give the cornerback no chance to recover. Even the bear hug he throws on Ebron momentarily does nothing, he’s not going to push Ebron out of that route once he has his lane.

If Eric Ebron brought real value as an outside receiver and in the slot, then why was he constantly lined up in line, where his deficiencies in blocking are a bigger deal and his strengths as a receiver are minimized?

Well, because the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger run 11 personnel. It’s what they do. The tight end is in-line, three receivers taking traditional spots with two outside and a slot.

Eric Ebron was brought in to be a weapon that didn’t fit the predictable molds other Steelers players fit, and the Steelers took him and forced him into that mold. Ebron played the most snaps of any of his NFL seasons and spent a higher percentage in-line than he had in any other season. Square peg, meet round hole. Enjoy.

I mean, duh, Eric Ebron isn’t Heath Miller. I think we all know that, and I think we’d all gladly trade Eric Ebron for one more season from HEEEEEAAAATH. But that’s not an option, and kicking our feet, punching the floor and demanding that Eric Ebron morph into Heath Miller isn’t going to do anything but waste the value Eric Ebron can offer the Steelers offense. Which is moving around to different positions, playing out wide and in the slot and creating mismatches with his route running.

Has anybody seen James Washington?

I’ve written about it in the past, James Washington plays great when JuJu Smith-Schuster is not playing. He disappears when JuJu Smith-Schuster is playing. It mirrors Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Sanders struggled to get targets and produce when playing with Antonio Brown. When Sanders left the Steelers he went off. He was always that good, he just needed to play the position Antonio Brown played, to run those routes to be great. When he moved to Denver with Demaryius Thomas, he took over the role Antonio Brown held in Pittsburgh and was great. In 2019, when JuJu Smith-Schuster was out, James Washington led the Steelers in receiving.

From Week 9 through Week 15, James Washington was targeted 42 times, catching 29 for 533 yards and 3 TDs. In those 7 weeksm JuJu Smith-Schuster was targeted 14 times for 81 yards, he played hurt for a few games before being injured enough to be forced to sit out against Cleveland.

The rest of the season? Smith-Schuster was targeted 56 times, catching 34 for 471 yards and 3 TDs. James Washington was targeted 38 times, catching 15 for 202 yards, no touchdowns. For 7 weeks James Washington was producing at a 1218 yards, 7 TD pace. In the other 8 games he played in, he was a forgettable depth receiver, averaging 25 yards a game. In 2020, James Washington averaged 24.5 yards per game. James Washington has consistently shown he will not be productive with JuJu Smith-Schuster playing. In the games where JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t play he looked like a valuable piece.

Didn’t the Steelers get rid of Randy Fichtner?

I mean, we all saw that right? Matt Canada is the new offensive coordinator. You know what Matt Canada doesn’t use a ton of? Eleven personnel. You know what he uses a lot? Formations that involve a tight end in line, along with a player that moves around, versatile players that can line up in the slot, as a wingback or H-back and offer threat to run, block or run a route, almost always a second running back or tight end, or even a fullback.

And yet, in the same season the Steelers are turning over the offense to Matt Canada they brought back JuJu Smith-Schuster and currently have only Eric Ebron at tight end. This isn’t about JuJu Smith-Schuster personally, this is about roster building, we’ll get to Smith-Schuster and his own merits later, this is about how the offense is going to work. Smith-Schuster re-joins Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington in the receiver room. On an offense with those receivers, tell me who is sitting down so they can use Derek Watt, a second tight end or Jaylen Samuels as a wingback? I mean, obviously James Washington isn’t going to be playing much, he’ll get 25 yards a game and then be a free agent at the end of the season. But Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are going to get a lot of snaps, and JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t return to be a rotational player with Watt, Samuels and a second tight end, he’s going to get a ton of snaps.

And that means 11 personnel. That’s not two tight ends with Eric Ebron moving into the slot, JuJu Smith-Schuster will be manning the slot. Without those heavier sets, Canada’s motion-heavy packages get neutered down to a jet-sweep motion that teams solved last year.

Eric Ebron isn’t lining up outside or in the slot with JuJu Smith-Schuster playing 90% of snaps. He’ll be the lone tight end, lining up in-line and being used as a blocker, or they’ll replace him in the formation with a tight end who offers little but blocking and teams won’t even have to worry about who will cover him. Where does that leave the run game? Last season the Steelers were a top ten rushing offense until teams figured out the Steelers ran on plays with different sets and motion and threw heavily out of 11 personnel with little motion.

I might be over-reacting. Matt Canada might have an offense that puts JuJu Smith-Schuster at running back, Eric Ebron at H-back, Chase Claypool at tight end and James Washington and Diontae Johnson out wide, but I doubt it. And that means the Steelers bringing back JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to accomplish two things that I don’t like: it relegates James Washington to continue being largely irrelevant, and it greatly reduces the odds that the Steelers will use Eric Ebron in a way that fits his skill set.

If the Steelers had instead signed an in-line tight end, I would bet the return on investment would actually be better than signing JuJu Smith-Schuster to what is honestly a really cheap contract for his talent level.

And that brings us to the last part of this article.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the hero of a terribly written story

JuJu Smith-Schuster chose the Steelers over other teams. The Ravens wanted him, and the Ravens Marlon Humphrey actually tweeted Smith-Schsuter to complain he hadn’t talked to Humphrey before making his decision.

I can tell you why the Ravens wanted Smith-Schuster, he’s be a perfect fit for them. He run blocks, that’s key in a run heavy offense, but the Ravens also need a reliable mid-range route runner with reliable hands and a big catch radius. Check, check and check. And for Smith-Schuster? Teams dropped linebackers deeper before the snap to take away slants and crossing routes against the Steelers, limiting Smith-Schuster’s ability to get open as he had to basically run through a double team. With Baltimore’s run game, you don’t get to drop linebackers deeper, The Steelers played their safeties closer to the line against the Ravens than teams played their linebackers against the Steelers. Smith-Schuster would be feasting on the 1v1 matchups he destroyed in 2017 and 2018 again.

And sure playing with Ben Roethlisberger is nice, but for guys like Smith-Schuster, with his hands and catch radius, QB talent doesn’t determine their stats. Hines Ward’s best production came in 2002, with Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox splitting time. Ward had two 1,000 yard seasons with Kordell Stewart as his quarterback, and three with Roethlisberger. JuJu Smith-Schuster could have done better in Baltimore than he did in Pittsburgh in 2020, because the run game would help him more than playing with Ben Roethlisberger in a stale, predictable offense.

The Kansas City Chiefs were also reported as being interested. I’ve heard people claim that was fake, but really, teams have come out plenty of times and said rumors like that were false, it just takes one anonymous source talking to a reporter to blow those things up. But apparently, Kansas City is fine with someone lying about them and making it look like players are willing to take less money to not play for them...

JuJu Smith-Schuster came back, turned down a bitter rival where he would have been a great fit, and gave up money to do so. He’s a folk hero. He could have turned heel and gone to Baltimore, been Lamar Jackson’s favorite receiver, and waltzed into free agency looking great. Instead, he chose Pittsburgh, which, when you look at how the Steelers used him last season, doesn’t make a lot of sense.

He played incredibly hard in 2020, got the short end of the stick route wise far too often, and he never complained about it. Never yelled at Ben on the sideline, nor did he make passive aggressive comments to the media. Didn’t make a peep when Ben set him up to get plastered against Cincinnati, instead he took responsibility for the fumble. JuJu Smith-Schuster has done everything Steeler fans always want players to do. He plays hard, doesn’t complain, showed loyalty to the city, fans and the organization and took less money to stay.

He’s a folk hero, a true Steeler.

He’s also a player the Steelers would have been better off not signing.