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JuJu Smith-Schuster banking on other receivers to give him the space to dominate

JuJu Smith-Schuster is hoping a return to form in 2021, but he’ll need some help.

NFL: Houston Texans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

JuJu Smith-Schuster burst onto the scene for the Pittsburgh Steelers after being a second-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. As a rookie, he came in and became an immediate impact player, and he did so at a variety of positions.

After what some would call a failed free agency period, Smith-Schuster returns to Pittsburgh for at least one more season. What will be different? What will be his goals?

“Playing more outside,” Smith-Schuster told media via Zoom this week. “Simple as that.”

Smith-Schuster has been considered one of the better slot receivers in the NFL, but him moving to the outside isn’t just him wanting to play a different position. It is more than that.

“Being able to play outside, you are adding more to your craft,” said Smith-Schuster. “When you look at Year 2, probably the best year I have had as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I played more outside than inside. Having another threat player on the other side with Ben (Roethlisberger). I think we have threat players all the way around.”

When Smith-Schuster talks about having a threat on the other side, having that would be the first time he could honestly say that since Antonio Brown left the organization. When Brown and Smith-Schuster were together, they were, at times, an unstoppable duo. With the emergence of Chase Claypool, Dionate Johnson and the new system of Matt Canada, the sky is the limit for this offense.

“As you see we’ve got James, Diontae, Chase, me, Ray-Ray, everyone who has put their hands in the pile. On top of that we’ve got Ben coming back. We have Najee, a great running back, even adding another tight end and with Eric Ebron coming back leading that group. We have some weapons.

“We’re going to have to go out there and ball out and be better than we were last year. The chemistry is already there, we just have to make it a stronger chemistry this year.”

With the Steelers wrapping up Organized Team Activities (OTAs) this week, they now take a few days break before the start of mandatory minicamp next week. Smith-Schuster is still getting acclimated to Matt Canada’s system, but he knows the impact he will have not just on him, but the entire offense.

“I haven’t even had a conversation with (offensive coordinator) Matt (Canada) about me playing outside, but through OTAs there’s been plays where he has put me outside, put me in the best situation getting the ball outside. It’s not just me, that’s all of us. Everyone is getting a little bit of a touch, moving around, knowing this offense. I think this offense is going to help us out a lot, being able to open up holes for Najee (Harris), being able to open plays and balls down the field. I really believe in this offense.”

After four years in the league, I think it is safe to say Smith-Schuster is a great wide receiver, but I don’t believe many would put him in the conversation as a “No. 1 wide out”. Most view him as a tremendous secondary threat, or a player who can make an impact as long as they aren’t facing double teams every snap.

That is exactly what happened with Smith-Schuster early in his career. When the defense would roll two, sometimes three, players to Brown’s side of the field, Smith-Schuster was able to take advantage of his one-on-one matchup from the slot.

The Steelers have the weapons, but can the likes of Claypool, Johnson, Ebron or even Najee Harris get Smith-Schuster the matchups he needs to thrive? Only time will tell, but it is safe to say Canada will do everything in his power to scheme Smith-Schuster open, and let him do the rest.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the 2021 regular season.