In the early stages of the offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II gives an interview in which he recaps the previous season and looks ahead to next season. The responses that he gives in this interview are often interpreted by outsider observers as edicts to which should be internally adhered to, and there is some correlation.
This year, one of the areas that Rooney cited for improvement was the Steelers’ red-zone offense. And I think that we can attempt to draw some correlation between what the team has done so far this offseason and Rooney’s comment about wanting to work on the red-zone offense.
One of the two offensive moves that they made in free agency was to bring in free agent wide receiver Justin Hunter, tall, fast wide receiver who has shown the ability to make tough catches in the end zone, even if he has other issues that explain why he is on his fourth team in a few years.
During the draft, the Steelers used second-and third-round picks on a tall wide receiver known for making combat catches and a big-bodied running back who racked up 52 touchdowns on the ground in 39 games in college, including 26 in 13 games in 2014, his last fully healthy season.
The latter would be Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who was the Steelers’ third-round compensatory selection on Friday. He is being brought in to back up starter Le’Veon Bell, but he could also be an option at the goal line—if that is something the Steelers would want to do. At least it’s an option. So is having both of them on the field at the same time.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, the USC wide receiver who was playing at 19 years old for the early portion of his final collegiate season, has recorded 20 touchdown receptions over the course of the past two years, including a good amount that occurred in the red zone. He actually had more touchdowns in the red zone last year than with Cody Kessler in 2015, where he had more explosive scores.
With good height, long arms, a solid vertical, and a competitive streak that sees him win the majority of toss-ups that come his way, Smith-Schuster should develop into a strong slot option in the red zone, which is something that they haven’t really had since Jerricho Cotchery left a few years ago. He scored 10 touchdowns in his last year with the Steelers.
Of course, we can’t forget about the reinstatement of Martavis Bryant at wide receiver and the impact that he will have in making the Steelers’ offense in the red zone more dynamic. But that wasn’t actually a decision that they had control over. Adding Smith-Schuster and Conner was, and their selections were likely made with an eye toward potentially boosting their red-zone efficiency.