The Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver room is stacked with talent. Just look at the top five wide receivers on the team’s depth chart, in no particular order:
When you look at the above names, you mentally imagine them playing specific positions within the structured offense.
Claypool’s dominant rookie season has him expected to start at one of the outside receiver positions, labeled the X or Z. Diontae Johnson seems built for the slot, the Y position, but he has had more snaps on the outside since coming into the league. James Washington is predominantly known to play the X or Z positions, and Ray-Ray McCloud is someone who can play anywhere, but primarily in the slot.
Then there is JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Smith-Schuster can play anywhere, but has done the most damage in his young NFL career from the slot. When Antonio Brown was harassing defensive backs on the perimeter, it was Smith-Schuster who was abusing nickel cornerbacks, linebackers and safeties from the slot.
Since the departure of Brown, Smith-Schuster has stuck with the slot position, for multiple reasons. One reason would be his blocking abilities, another is his ability to win mismatches from that area of the field and then the Steelers’ drafting players who can’t play the slot as well as Smith-Schuster.
But that all might change in 2021 with Matt Canada calling the plays, at least that is what Smith-Schuster told Adam Schefter on his podcast recently.
“You are going to get the whole package,” Smith-Schuster said. “I think the biggest thing that a lot of people are talking about is me playing outside. You’ll definitely see me playing outside more.”
This all sounds well and good, but the logistics don’t always match up. If Smith-Schuster is not in the slot, that would leave either Johnson or McCloud as the primary slot receivers. Not a horrible idea, but then you have a log jam at players on the outside. If the answer to Smith-Schuster playing the X or Z receiver positions is to limit Chase Claypool’s snaps, I can’t foresee many fans who would be behind such a move. If you want to move Claypool to the slot, it would certainly create mismatches, that could be a fix to get players like Johnson or Washington snaps on the outside.
The one area of this discussion which should be remembered is how despite Smith-Schuster’s comments, the Steelers will likely be a team who moves their receivers around to get the mismatch they want. Smith-Schuster can say whatever he wants on a podcast, but if the Steelers see him winning a matchup, and therefore helping the team win in the process one week, they’ll do it. The same could be said for any number of receivers on the roster.
Ultimately, the hope is the offense has improved, and it all starts with a more balanced approach. Taking some of the burden off of Ben Roethlisberger’s shoulders and improving the running game. The addition of Najee Harris in the 2021 NFL Draft is a start, and Smith-Schuster is excited about this new piece of the puzzle.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Smith-Schuster said. “We are going to be a balanced offense now.”
A balanced offensive attack could be just what the doctor ordered for Roethlisberger’s aging arm, the offense as a whole and the defense not being forced onto the field immediately after making a stop.
Smith-Schuster playing more on the outside could be just the latest wrinkle Canada brings to the Steelers’ offense, and it might just have fans sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to see what it is all about.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers as they prepare for the 2021 regular season.