Four Downs: Is JuJu Smith-Schuster showing he can be Steelers’ No. 1 receiver? |
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Chris Adamski

1. What’s wrong with JuJu?

While acknowledging the outside factors of the changes in his quarterback and complementary wide receivers and in a shift in playcalling, how is it fair to evaluate Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season – one in which he ranks tied for 51st in the NFL in catches (17) and 33rd in yards (258) through four weeks after he’d finished sixth (tied) and fifth in those categories last season?

A look at the numbers gives mixed answers.

At the most fundamental level (but ask Donte Moncrief how easy it is), Smith-Schuster is catching the passes he should catch. Smith-Schuster has not dropped a pass all season, as verified by multiple services who track such things. Pro Football Focus, for example, had him with six drops last season

After catching the ball, getting open is the next most basic skill for an NFL wide receiver. And judging by NFL Next Gen Stats’ “separation” measurement, Smith-Schuster is not doing that as well as he used to. This season, Smith-Schuster is averaging 2.4 yards between himself and the nearest defender at the time of catch or incompletion. Last season, it was 3.0. So, quantitatively, Smith-Schuster is getting 20 percent less open in 2019 then he was in 2018.

PFF reports that Smith-Schuster has been targeted on 19.8% of his routes this season, down slightly from the 23.5% rate Steelers quarterbacks (mostly, Ben Roethlisberger) went his way last year. As a consequence, Smith-Schuster’s average yards per route run has dropped from 2.02 to 1.97.

But many of these stats would be much better if Smith-Schuster was sent – and targeted – on deep throws as often as he was last year. He’s only been targeted three times when he’s been 20 or more yards downfield all season, with the only catch coming in a flea flicker against Seattle. Last season, Smith-Schuster was thrown 24 deep passes; nine of them were caught.

2. Coming up short on “and-short”

The Steelers are a putrid 1 for 7 combined on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 this season. They have attempted fives runs and two passes in such situations, with only a 23-yard run by Benny Snell against Seattle to show for a success. Snell’s third-and-1 attempt against Cincinnati last week went for no gain. In three attempts this season on third- or fourth-and-1, James Conner has gained 0 yards, minus-4 yards and 0 yards, respectively. The Steelers’ two unsuccessful pass attempts on third- or fourth-and-1 were both in the season to Donte Moncrief.

The Steelers have the worst success rate on these third- and fourth-and-1 plays in the NFL. Making matters is worse is that their defense has likewise been one of the worst in the league in such situations: opposing offenses are 8-for-9 on “and-1’s” on third or fourth downs.

3. YAC-fest

Among all quarterbacks in the league according to PFF, by far the highest rate of passing yards to have come after the catch belongs to Rudolph. His 68.2% of passing yards to come after the catch leads No. 2 in that category, the Jets’ Luke Falk, by a wide margin (60.1%). But that doesn’t mean all is lost, especially this week: PFF notes that no team in the league has allowed more YAC (yards after catch) this season than the Ravens (668).

4. Under-whelming

With the Killer B’s no longer playing for the Steelers, in general so have the winning “over” wagers on the team. Three of the Steelers’ four games this season have fallen under the betting-line total; dating back to last season, the trend covers five of seven and eight of 11 Steelers’ games.

This after the Steelers began the 2018 season (with Roethlisberger and Brown, albeit not with Le’Veon Bell) with their first three games (and four of their first five) going “over.” Counting the postseason and dating to late in 2017 (when Bell was still playing), Steelers games had gone “over” 10 of 13 times from December 2017 through October 2018.

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