Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith Schuster has played roughly the same number of snaps aligned out of the slot as he has on the outside over the course of the first three games of the 2017 regular season. That balance could shift more heavily in favor of the inside position starting tomorrow.
There is a legitimate motive to do so. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley have talked about the potential for matchup problems a wide receiver with his size who can work the middle of the field could present to opposing defenses. His capability of playing in the slot was an attractive quality for them in the draft.
Just think back to the one season in which Jerricho Cotchery earned the role of the number three receiver working in the slot. A bigger-bodied player who had a toughness about him and a willingness to block, he was quite the asset in both the passing game—posting a career-high 10 touchdown receptions—and as a blocker in the running game.
Smith-Schuster has already put forth a highlight-reel-worthy block this season, sending Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith of the Vikings spilling to the ground with force as he pulled from the right side around left end. There is no shortage of drive for this aspect of the game in the young man.
The Steelers seem not only to see this but to crave it. Smith Schuster played more snaps than Martavis Bryant did overall on Sunday and they appear to be shaping up to sit Eli Rogers in favor of Justin Hunter. Rogers had been their primary slot receiver since the start of last season.
32 of his 53 snaps in that contest saw him lined up in the slot, with many of his snaps lined up on the outside coming in his playing time during which Rogers was also on the field at the same time. it stands to reason that the proportion of the rookie’s snaps that come out of the slot will only rise should Rogers be a gameday inactive.
The Steelers have as a team rushed for 3.1 yards per carry on average over the course of the first three games on 66 rushing attempts. They have averaged 4.5 yards per carry on the 13 runs in which Smith-Schuster was on the field and in the slot.
To warn against overreaction and oversimplification in response to that statistic due to the small sample size is fair. But the Steelers appear to desire this body type and presence in this role in the slot anyway, so seeing early productive results from it is nothing but a positive.
Smith-Schuster’s work in the slot is not going to be defined as a run blocker. He is going to have to pull his weight as a wide receiver, though it would be stating the obvious that the Steelers believe he will deliver in this area as well. He has five receptions for 55 yards and a touchdown over the past two weeks.