For several years, the talk of a “youth movement” for the Pittsburgh Steelers has been almost exclusively limited to the defensive side of the ball. But that movement has spilled over onto the offensive side in 2017, and it’s making waves — in Pittsburgh, on social media and around the league.
The Steelers found a true gem in the 2017 NFL draft with second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster, a wide receiver from USC. He leads all rookie receivers in 2017 in yards (521), yards per reception (17.97), yards per target (12.12), catch percentage (67.4 percent), yards per game (57.9) and touchdowns (5). He trails only Los Angeles Rams rookie receiver Cooper Kupp in targets (54 to 43) and receptions (32 to 29). Only Kupp has at least half of Smith-Schuster’s receiving yards.
On a team with Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and Le’Veon Bell, Smith-Schuster’s ability to become the team’s de facto No. 2 receiver as a rookie has been nothing short of remarkable. And for the cherry on top of the whole sundae, he’s doing it all while becoming every Steelers fan’s “adopted little brother”.
One area where he is becoming particularly useful to the team is in the red zone. More than one quarter of all his targets (8) have come inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Four of those eight were completed passes; three were touchdowns, and the fourth was good for a first down. That’s solid production for anyone, let alone a rookie.
So it came to pass that he was, once again, targeted in the red zone against the Colts in Week 10. And he didn’t disappoint.
Midway through the third quarter, the visiting Steelers found themselves inexplicably trailing the Colts, 17-3. They had been largely unable to move the ball for the entire first half, and needed a fairly spectacular 44-yard catch by Smith-Schuster, himself, to get into scoring position in the first place. The Steelers would get the ball inside the Colts’ 10-yard line a few plays later, before the two teams traded pass interference penalties on consecutive plays.
The Steelers came to the line on first-and-goal from the Colts’ 7-yard line in “12” personnel. Bell was alone in the backfield, while Brown lined up wide to the offensive left. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James lined up in a three-man bunch to the right along with Smith-Schuster. The Colts had 3-4 personnel on the field.
At the snap, Roethlisberger fakes a handoff to the right to Bell, who runs toward the right C gap. This fake draws in the Colts’ inside linebackers, Antonio Morrison and Jon Bostic. Both move toward the hole to meet Bell, only to find out he doesn’t have the ball.
Tight ends McDonald and James don’t run routes on this play. They immediately go into blocking mode, which perfectly sells the run. Even Smith-Schuster, himself, sells it well, approaching cornerback Quincy Wilson as if he is going to block him. Once he has Wilson back on his heels, he breaks inside, turning what initially looked like a block attempt into a crisply executed angle route.
Because the inside linebackers were drawn in by the play fake, Roethlisberger has two clear sight lines: one of Smith-Schuster with a full one-step lead on Wilson, and one of the spot on the field to which he throws the ball. The well-placed pass hits Smith-Schuster in stride for the touchdown.
Offensive coordinator Toddy Haley has taken a lot of heat this year, and most of it has been well-deserved. His play-calling has been the cause of many stalled drives in 2017. However, he doesn’t get enough credit for his play design, which is among the best in the league. While this could be seen as a low-percentage play, considering that only two receivers actually ran routes, the design of the play and the execution by the entire offense made this score look almost effortless.
And let’s not overlook one of the most critical things, here: Bryant wasn’t even on the field for this play. The rapport and trust Smith-Schuster is building with both Roethlisberger and Haley cannot be understated. At a critical juncture of the game, it was a rookie receiver — not Bryant, nor even Brown — who got the nod.
And, like he’s already done several times in the past, JuJu delivered. He’s quickly proving that no moment is too big for him.
And that’s huge for the Steelers.