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What did JuJu Smith-Schuster bring in his return to the Steelers?

After three months of rehab, Smith-Schuster showed his resiliency by taking the field again in the 2021 postseason.

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Pittsburgh Steelers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers had a welcomed surprised as JuJu Smith-Schuster returned for the postseason after having shoulder surgery in October. Believed to be out for six month, Smith-Schuster returned in three in order to have one last game with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. So how did Smith-Schuster perform? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

JuJu Smith-Schuster went 98 days between his injury during the Steelers Week 5 matchup against the Denver Broncos and when he appeared in the Wild Card game in Kansas City. With only four and a half games on the season before his injury, Smith-Schuster had 15 receptions on 28 targets for 129 yards and no receiving touchdowns during the regular season. Smith-Schuster’s only touchdown of the season was of the rushing variety where he had three rushes for 9 yards. Unfortunately, it was one of those three rushes in which he took the hit which ended his regular season.

Coming back for the playoffs, Smith-Schuster played 52 of the Steelers 68 offensive snaps. After more than three months off, Smith-Schuster managed five receptions on eight targets for 26 yards.

While the yardage seemed unimpressive from Smith-Schuster, it should be noted that three of his five receptions resulted in first downs. Smith-Schuster converted a 2nd & 3 with a 7-yard reception as well as a 2nd & 6 with another 7-yard reception which happened to be the Steelers only first down of the first quarter. Smith-Schuster also had a third down conversion where he gained 5 yards on the 3rd & 3. The only two receptions in which Smith-Schuster did not have a first down was a 6-yard gain on 2nd & 10 and 1-yard gain on 2nd & 6.

Ultimately, exactly how Smith-Schuster fit back into the Steelers passing game is going to have to be answered by looking at the film.

The Film Line:

One usual way JuJu Smith-Schuster makes an impact on the field is his blocking. Unfortunately the Steelers didn’t run the ball well enough for his blocking to make a difference against Kansas City, but we can still cover his impact in the passing game.

The primary threat JuJu Smith-Scuster brought in this game was already referenced by Dave Schofield in the stats line, converting first downs.

Steelers v Chiefs, 1st quarter, 5:39.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the bottom of the screen.

A smoothly run route, a clean catch and the fight to convert for a first down. These are the trademarks JuJu Smith-Schuster has become known for the last couple of years. But it wasn’t always the case. From the time he was drafted into the early part of the 2019 season JuJu Smith-Schuster was one of the most efficient downfield receivers in the NFL. Smith-Schuster still holds the spot for having the best yards per target on passes travelling 15+ yards during Ben Roethlisberger’s time as the Steelers quarterback. That hasn’t been the case in 2020 and 2021. And it showed up in the Wild Card game.

Steelers v Chiefs, 1st quarter, 4:15.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the top of the screen.

Smith-Schuster isn’t a receiver who gets yards of separation, but neither was Antonio Brown. A well run route and a well-placed pass don’t require yards of separation to be effective.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is open here, on a route that Ben Roethlisberger torched defenses with for well over a decade, with receivers from Hines Ward to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who scored 97 yard touchdowns off routes very similar to this one right here in both 2017 and 2018. This throw misses, but it also doesn’t have the speed that Roethlisberger used to put on those throws.

I put this in here because seeing this route and throw during the game really drove home the difference between Ben Roethlisberger then and now. Maybe I got a little too emotional over this play, but it was an emotional night and this last game with Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger together involved this flashback to days that used to be, and are no more.

Steelers v Chiefs, 3rd quarter, 5:25.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the top of the screen.

The Chiefs are aggressively jamming anything inside, so Smith-Schuster fakes an inside release, dodges the jam and it’s an easy pitch and catch for a first down. JuJu Smith-Schuster has been making these plays look easy his entire career, and he still has it. One thing to take away from this clip is his focus. Smith-Schuster watches the ball come in, staring the ball in to his grip. Look at how light on his feet he is until the catch, and contrast with the powerful drive he shows immediately after the catch.

One of Smith-Schuster’s greatest strengths is his patience, he almost never looks to run before securing the catch. He’ll take big hits because he pays no attention to the defender, he’s catching the ball first. But once that catch is secured he turns into a physical runner looking to punish tacklers and fight for extra yards.

Steelers v Chiefs, 4th quarter, 13:36.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the top of the screen.

Speaking of taking big hits. The Steelers frequently use JuJu Smith-Schuster on these routes because he will catch the ball, and it isn’t easy to get the ball away from him once he has it. He’s taken his share of crushing hits for it. I think everyone can remember the Bengals game in 2020, but we see the same thing here.

The problem here is JuJu Smith-Schuster is running a man-beating route, and it is zone defense. This route isn’t a good one on this play, but Ben Roethlisberger will throw this route because he trusts JuJu Smith-Schsuter to make the catch and fight for whatever he can get.

Steelers v Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 1:07.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the top of the screen.

Ignore the underthrow to Chase Claypool, look at JuJu Smith-Schuster running the same route against man coverage. Smith-Schuster is almost guaranteed to pick up that first down. I’m not saying it was the wrong choice by Ben Roethlisberger, he made a career out of making these “wrong” throws right. He just didn’t pull it off here. With hindsight we can say he probably should have thrown it to Smith-Schuster on 3rd and 5 here, but you don’t get to play football with hindsight.

Steelers v Chiefs, 2nd quarter, 4:51.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the 2nd receiver from the bottom of the screen.

This is likely the most memorable failed third down conversion from the Wild Card game. Watch #50, lined up across from Smith-Schuster. Willie Gay is in zone, and you can see the attention JuJu Smith-Schuster receives on this play, and it leaves Diontae Johnson wide open.

The Point:

JuJu Smith-Schuster is a receiver with very few weaknesses, and a good number of strengths. He doesn’t stand out for physical characteristics, flashy catches, or elusive running, he just executes at an incredibly high level and plays football the right way. Even as his downfield production and his stat lines have decreased since Ben Roethlisberger’s injury in 2019, he has still benefited the Steelers by becoming one of the most reliable receivers for converting first downs in the NFL.

Will Smith-Schuster be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020? A lot of that has to do with contract expectations going forward. While the Steelers definitely don’t want to over-pay in any situation, keeping Smith-Schuster for the right price would keep a tough, veteran receiver to help out the next quarterback for the Black & Gold.