Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines the way the Pittsburgh Steelers scheme open JuJu Smith-Schuster.
A prevalent flaw with fan and media is their willingness to conflate production with skill. While true there must be a certain amount of skill to earn NFL production—and it’s usually an abundant amount—we often mistake elite production as an indicator that the player posting those numbers is an elite player at his position.
He may be elite at what he does well, but it doesn’t mean he can do everything that a different team would expect from him at the position. JuJu Smith-Schuster is a great example.
I have always loved his game, but I know it’s a game with limitations. Like Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas, Smith-Schuster has proven capable of delivering the production of a top primary receiver like Julio Jones or Davante Adams. However, Cooks, Thomas, and Smith-Schuster lack specific tools in their respective toolboxes and they don’t win in as many different ways as Jones and Adams.
Their limitations require their offenses to do create plays that leverage their strengths and have teammates with complementary strengths. This is far more common than having a Jones or Adams on every roster.
Smith-Schuster and Thomas have a lot of similarities. They’re both strong receivers with more short-area quickness and route savvy than deep speed. They operate best from the slot, but have enough athletic ability and technical skill to win in the deep game with the aid of play-action or coverage mismatches.
What they do well, they do incredibly well. What they don’t do well requires their offenses to “scheme open” the player—using play design to minimize the player’s weaknesses and maximize his strengths. As much as I valued Smith-Schuster’s skills, this is why I questioned the view that Smith-Schuster would earn consecutive seasons as an elite producer as the Steelers embarked on the 2019 season without Antonio Brown.
Brown’s elite skills, especially his field-stretching ability opened the field for Smith-Schuster’s big-yardage plays in 2018. The 2019 Steelers lacked a versatile and proven option anywhere near Brown.
James Washington could stretch the field but lacked refinement with much of the route tree. Diontae Johnson was a rookie and the team lacked another weapon with versatile route skills that could also threaten defenses vertically.
Unfortunately, the injury to Ben Roethlisberger prevented us from seeing whether the young weapons on the Steelers’ receiving corps could prove this argument wrong and open the field for Smith-Schuster, who also dealt with an injury-plagued campaign. With key components returning to health and a year of experience for its youth, 2020 could be an opportunity to see if Smith-Schuster can deliver elite production without an option of Brown’s wide-ranging talents.
After studying Week 1’s performance against the Giants, it’s clear that in order for Smith-Schuster to deliver top-tier production, he’ll not only need Ben Roethlisberger’s best traits but also creative scheming to get it done. If the Giants’ game is any indication, the Pittsburgh could be up to the task.
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