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JuJu Smith-Schuster’s value to the Steelers offense, Part 2

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

Denver Broncos v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/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 last two years in Pittsburgh as last week we addressed his first three seasons.

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. So in this part, it’s time to look at what Smith-Schuster did for the Steelers after Ben Roethlisberger’s return from his injury. Despite missing a large chunk of 2021, here are the numbers for Smith-Schuster over the past two seasons.

After missing four games the previous season, Smith-Schuster saw his use and yardage increased in 2020 with the return of Ben Roethlisberger. Smith-Schuster had 97 receptions on 128 targets for 831 yards and nine touchdowns. Where things were significantly different were in Smith-Schuster‘s yards per reception. Coming in at 13.1 in 2019, just up from 12.8 in 2018, Smith-Schuster‘s yards per reception dropped to 8.6 in 2020. While he led the Steelers in receptions with 97, Smith-Schuster was third in yardage behind Diontae Johnson (923) and Chase Claypool (873). So in 2020, Smith-Schuster saw his receptions bounce back but on much more short-yardage plays. It should also be noticed that Smith-Schuster saw the most receiving touchdowns in a season he has had in his career, and his catch percentage was also a career high of 75.8%.

In 2021, Smith-Schuster once again had an 8.6 yards per reception in his five games before being knocked out for the rest of the regular season. Smith-Schuster only had 15 receptions on 28 targets for 129 yards and no touchdowns before getting injured in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos. Smith-Schuster did have his only rushing touchdown of his career in Week 2 against the Las Vegas Raiders. Unfortunately, it was on another rushing attempt, one of only three he only had all season, in which Smith-Schuster was injured.

For 2021, Smith-Schuster’s low numbers may appear to be a result of his number of games played. But when looking at averages, Smith-Schuster had his lowest numbers of his career. Not only did he have 8.6 yards per reception just like in 2020, he had a career low in yards per target at 4.6 as well as his worst catch percentage of his career of 53.6%. Smith-Schuster also had his lowest receptions per game of his career at 3.0 as well as yards per game of 25.8.

So was Smith Schuster‘s lack of production based on the abilities of his quarterback, his usage, or a diminishing skill set? Let’s check the film to see if we could get a better idea.

The Film Line:

JuJu Smith-Schuster returned in 2020, looking to rebound from a down year plagued with injury and backup quarterbacks.

His film shows frequently that he still had it.

Steelers v Cowboys, 2020, 4th quarter, 15:00.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the slot receiver.

Smith-Schuster is a smooth route runner, and makes this look easy. He sells the corner route well enough to turn the safety around and then powers through two defenders to finish the play.

This is the JuJu Smith-Schuster Steeler fans knew from his first years. If only he could do it consistently.

Steelers v Ravens, 2020, 1st quarter, 0:49.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the receiver in motion.

One of the problems Smith-Schuster had was the unreliable nature of his wide receiver co-stars. Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron, all struggled with drops and weren’t as reliable at finishing plays. This led the Steelers to use Smith-Schuster as a security blanket for Ben Roethlisberger, running short routes into traffic because it was unlikely Smith-Schuster would deflect the ball to the defense.

The Steelers did it enough that it became predictable.

Steelers v Cowboys, 2020, 4th quarter, 15:00.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the slot receiver.

Well before the ball is thrown, safety Von Bell is charging Smith-Schuster’s route, leaving Chase Claypool wide open, knowing the ball was going to the underneath route. Quarterbacks aren’t supposed to lead receivers into hits like this, but with a struggling offensive line, Ben Roethlisberger was throwing quick and not always throwing smart.

Steelers v Bengals, 2020, 2nd quarter, 2:38.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the slot receiver.

While Smith-Schuster has shown he’s capable of running deeper routes and double moves, the Steelers didn’t utilize them, even when defenders were constantly jumping his underneath routes.

While Smith-Schuster was able to play in every game in 2020, he ended the season third in receiving yards on the Steelers, largely because his yards per reception plummeted. From 2017 through 2020 his yards per reception went: 15.8, 12.8, 13.1, 8.6. Dropping 4.5 yards from your average reception distance is pretty big. Smith-Schuster hadn’t gotten substantially worse, but his usage had.

Steelers v Bills, 2021, 4th quarter, 4:41.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the slot receiver.

In the Steelers 2021 Week 1 upset of the Buffalo Bills JuJu Smith-Schuster had what would be his best game of the season, and this was the longest reception of his shortened year. For whatever reasons, Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster weren’t able to connect on many passes, and Smith-Schuster’s career 70% catch rate fell to 53.6% in 2021.

Steelers v Packers, 2021, 2nd quarter, 12:42.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the receiver to the top of the screen (not in motion).

No game was their lack of connection more on display than in Week 4 against the Green Bay Packers. Here a great cut that again puts a defensive back on the ground leads to nothing as the ball sails behind Smith-Schuster incomplete.

Steelers v Packers, 2021, 2nd quarter, 6:40.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

A good move gets Smith-Schuster free of the defensive back for what should have been a touchdown, but they can’t complete the play.

Steelers v Packers, 2021, 3rd quarter, 7:17.

JuJu Smith-Schuster (#19) is the receiver on the left side of the formation.

Again Smith-Schuster is open for a potential big gain. Again the ball falls incomplete. JuJu Smith-Schuster is still the most efficient deep ball receiver of Ben Roethlsiberger’s career, with his high catch rate on downfield throws leading to the best yards per target of any receiver of Ben Roethlsiberger’s downfield throws. But in 2021 it was far from what it used to be. You can even see how little the defense respected the deep ball here, the safety doesn’t care about JuJu Smith-Schuster running past him, he’s looking to jump the underneath route.

And why shouldn’t he? If you don’t gain any yards on a route, why should the defense bother to defend it?

Smith-Schuster’s 2/8 for 11 yards (1.38 yards per target) against Green Bay was only the second-worst game of his career, behind the last game of 2019, the awful game against Baltimore when Devlin Hodges and JuJu Smith-Schuster went 2/6 for only 6 yards. Ben Roethlisberger and JuJu Smith-Schuster had gone from a top five duo in 2018 to Devlin Hodges at the end of 2019 levels of awful in 2021.

The Point:

The stats show the drop off with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Ben Roethlisberger over the last two seasons. And looking at the film, there are a number of factors as to why this occurred. Yes, Smith-Schuster missed some time, so perhaps the quarterback and receiver would have built a little more rapport as 2021 went on. Unfortunately, we’ll never know the answer for that variable.

Was it Ben Roethlisberger’s play at the end of his career? Was there something significantly different with JuJu Smith-Schuster? Was it the scheme and usage the last two seasons? In this case, we have presented you with the information, both numerically and visually, for you to make your best judgment.

As for JuJu Smith-Schuster’s future with the Steelers, he may not be in a big hurry to come back to Pittsburgh if he’s going to be utilized in the same way he was the last two seasons. If the Steelers can convince Smith-Schuster to return, they need to go out of their way to put him in a better situation than the ones outlined above. Perhaps the lack of numbers put up over the last 2 Seasons will drive down the price Smith-Schuster could get on the open market, but all teams need to do is look at the film, much like that above, and see that there is potential for Smith-Schuster to bring the same parts of his game that got him noticed around the NFL his first two seasons.