Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was likely exceeding all expectations through his first-seven weeks. He had taken most of the slot reps from fellow receiver Eli Rogers, and was even beginning to steal some snaps on the outside from Martavis Bryant.
Bryant’s demotion to scout team following an ill-advised social media tirade last week opened a huge door for Smith-Schuster, as he would be the No. 2 receiver opposite future legend Antonio Brown. It was up to the 20-year-old rookie, however, to embrace the opportunity.
He did. Quickly. On the game’s first scrimmage play, in fact.
The Steelers are using 11-personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end) and they begin the play in a balanced, four-receiver look, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in shotgun. Wide to the left is Justin Hunter, with Antonio Brown next to him in the left slot. Across the formation, JuJu Smith-Schuster is the wide man, with tight end Jesse James in the slot.
The Lions start off with two safeties about 10 yards off the line, but appear to shift to a Cover-3 shell as the offense begins to set and Brown motions across the formation:
It’s a safe play against the Steelers’ four receivers on the first snap of the game. Two additional defenders align across from Smith-Schuster and James.
At the snap, the Steelers perfectly sell the wide-receiver screen. For as maddening as it has been to see offensive coordinator Todd Haley start almost every game this year with a variation of the bubble screen, it worked to perfection to set up this play.
Immediately, Brown takes a single step forward, then drops back and turns towards Roethlisberger, who pump-fakes to Brown. Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster and James are cautiously approaching the nearby defenders, totally selling that they were lining up to block for Brown.
What makes this play work is Smith-Schuster’s clear play towards the outside defender, looking as if he’s trying to clear out the sideline for Brown. As Smith-Schuster clears the inside defender, the cornerback is beginning to break down to absorb the block. It’s at this point that Smith-Schuster obliterated the preconceived notions from his college scouting reports that he 1) struggles to get separation, and 2) doesn’t run precise routes. This is not a route in the classic sense, but 90 percent of the skill in route-running is leaving the defender guessing as to what you’re actually going to do.
In this case, the youngster was about to take off, and only he knew it.
As he clears the defender off of his left shoulder, he quickly rotates his hips and jumps immediately to high gear, leaving the cornerback on the sideline to wonder how he was going to explain this one to his coach. By the time Smith-Schuster was 17 yards downfield, he was at least five yards behind everyone except the free safety, as you can see from the video below:
If Roethlisberger puts this ball out in front of the rookie, there was little chance the free safety was going to be able to make a play, leaving Smith-Schuster all alone and scampering 75 yards for a touchdown. Instead, Ben shorts the throw a little, allowing the defense time to catch up and make a tackle. In the end, this play would go down as a 41-yard completion, and the drive would stall when receiver Eli Rogers dropped a relatively routine catch in the back of the end zone. The Steelers would settle for three, and this slugfest was officially underway.
While Smith-Schuster’s night will forever be remembered for his 97-yard touchdown in the third quarter, this may have been his most well-executed play of the night. It takes an eye for timing and nuance to make a play like this work as well as this one would have if the throw had been more accurate, and the rookie receiver appears to have that trait in spades.
That’s good for the Steelers and bad for everyone else.