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JuJu Smith-Schuster’s value to the Steelers offense, Part 1

Is the former Pro Bowl receiver worth a big contract to stay in Pittsburgh?

NFL: OCT 29 Steelers at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers only have two of their top five wide receivers under contract for 2022. With James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud, and JuJu Smith-Schuster all set to become free agents at the start of the league year in March. The most expensive of these three players is JuJu Smith-Schuster, who just earned $8 million in 2021. Is Smith-Schuster worth a bigger investment by the Steelers? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex, looking specifically at his first three years in Pittsburgh this week with the rest of his career being the subject for next week.

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:

As we look at what JuJu Smith-Schuster has brought to the Steelers in his five year career, Geoffrey asked me to have the breaking point being his first three seasons versus his last two. Mainly, the second part of this feature will look at what Smith-Schuster did for the Steelers after Ben Roethlisberger’s return from his injury. For now, I’ll take a look at his first two seasons, playing alongside Antonio Brown, and the 2019 season in which JuJu both missed time and did not have Ben Roethlisberger as a quarterback.

It was Smith-Schuster‘s rookie season where he started to put up good numbers where in 14 games he saw 79 targets in which he had 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns with a long of 97 yards. In 2018, Smith-Schuster appeared in 16 games where he was targeted 166 times for 111 receptions. Smith-Schuster amassed 1,426 receiving yards and once again had seven receiving touchdowns with a long of 97 yards.

The big difference between Smith-Schuster‘s first and second year is actually being less productive with more targets. Smith-Schuster saw decreases both in yards per reception (12.85 from 15.81), catch percentage (66.9% from 73.4%), and yards per target (8.59 from 11.61).

In JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s third year with the Steelers, he saw a reduction across the board. Not only did he only appear in 12 games, he saw 70 targets with 42 receptions for 552 receiving yards and three touchdowns. Smith-Schuster did have a higher yards per reception than the previous year with 13.14 but had a lower catching percentage of 60.0% and yards per target at 7.89.

So what was Smith-Schuster bringing to the Steelers offense in his first three season? Let’s go down memory lane by looking at some film.

The Film Line:

Let’s start at the very beginning.

2017 Steelers v Vikings, 2nd quarter, 13:35.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Smith-Schuster’s first NFL target was a touchdown, and while it wasn’t an impressive route or a long gain, it showed his natural football instincts and his knack for picking up important and tough yards.

But it wouldn’t take long for flashier plays to come.

2017, Steelers v Lions, 3rd quarter, 3:15.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, is the receiver to the right side of the screen.

Two of Smith-Schuster’s biggest assets are his strength and his releases off the line. It made him a formidable matchup for slot and depth corners as a rookie. And while he didn’t test fast at the combine, he showed he wasn’t easy to catch in a foot race either.

2018 Steelers v Browns, 2nd quarter, 2:00.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.

In his second season Smith-Schuster took off. He was as technically sound as any receiver in the NFL, and combined a great feel for the game with great physical control of his body. It made him a mismatch for almost any 1v1 coverage. With Antonio Brown on the opposite side of the field from Smith-Schuster, it didn’t give defenses much of a chance.

2018 Steelers v Patriots, 2nd quarter, 6:06.

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

The Patriots flipped the script on the Steelers, bracketing JuJu Smith-Schuster and trusting Stephon Gilmore to cover Antonio Brown 1v1. It worked as neither Smith-Schuster nor Brown gained even 50 yards in the game.

With Antonio Brown leaving the Steelers, the big question was if JuJu Smith-Schuster could continue to produce without Brown. Could he be a great receiver with defenses free to focus on him, and could he lead the Steelers wide receivers?

2019 Steelers v Patriots, 2nd quarter, 3:37.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Right before the snap you can see Smith-Schuster signaling to rookie Diontae Johnson, then Smith-Schuster beats Stephon Gilmore to convert the first down.

Week 1 of 2019 JuJu Smith-Schuster was followed around the field by the eventual 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Smith-Schuster led the anemic Steelers offense with 78 yards, only one other receiver would record more than 75 yards against the Patriots before Week 10 of their season.

Through the 6 quarters Ben Roethlisberger played in 2019, he had a 102.5 passer rating when he targeted JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 58.3 rating when passing to anyone else. While the rest of the passing game struggled, JuJu Smith-Schuster did not. It didn’t end when Roethlisberger went on IR either. Through Week 8 of 2019 Smith-Schuster had played 6 games with either Ben Roethlisberger or Mason Rudolph as the starting quarterback. In those games he caught 29 of his 43 targets (67.4%) for 436 yards and 3 touchdowns. If you take that pace over 16 games you get 1,162 yards and 8 touchdowns. In Week 8 Smith-Schuster gained 103 yards and scored this touchdown:

2019 Steelers v Dolphins, 3rd quarter, 3:23.

Juju Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Smith-Schuster was still a matchup nightmare for any corner 1v1. His strength in the route, smooth body control, and great hands had him on track for another great season through the first 8 weeks of 2019.

The Point:

Two things derailed Smith-Schuster’s 2019 season: injuries and Devlin Hodges. Smith-Schsuter played through several injuries until the Cleveland game in Week 11 when he left with injury and didn’t return until Week 16. While he missed a good chunk of Devlin Hodges’ games, the three games Smith-Schuster played and Devlin Hodges started were not good. In those games Hodges threw 10 passes to Smith-Schuster, only 3 were completed for a total of 13 yards. They were not a good pairing.

But when Mason Rudolph returned for part of the Week 16 game against the Jets, he threw three passes to Smith Schuster for 22 yards in about one-third of a game.

Even when the Steelers offense was in shambles, JuJu Smith-Schuster was producing. He had showed his potential as a rookie, had a monster season in his second year playing across from Antonio Brown, and before his 2019 campaign was derailed, he was one of the few bright spots on the Steelers offense.

So what happened after that? Why did his yards per target fall even farther in 2020 and again in 2021? How did he go from trending toward a 1000 yard season to averaging 25 yards a game when he was healthy in 2021? Why does he keep getting hurt?

Look for Part 2 looking at JuJu Smith-Schuster coming next week.