Perhaps not since Bill Dudley back in the early 1940s have the Pittsburgh Steelers asked a player as young as rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster to wear as many hats as he has this season—and Dudley didn’t even have to manage his burgeoning social media empire or find his stolen bike.
From the season opener on, the Steelers have put the second-round pick in a diversity of roles, initially rotating in the slot while taking some snaps on the outside as well as fulfilling obligations for most of the season as the team’s primary kick returner.
But one of the more overlooked ‘hats’ that he has worn this season has been actually playing in the role of a tight end. It hasn’t been often—around a dozen snaps or so on the season—but it has been notable, and is a role they have installed this year. Even when he didn’t play, the team put Darrius Heyward-Bey into that role, so it’s something that they want to do.
The first time we saw this came back in week two, and it was a pretty big deal for the rookie. It was his first offensive touch, and his first touchdown. Lined up shaded beneath Jesse James off the left side, who was tucked up next to Alejandro Villanueva, Smith-Schuster swept to his right as Ben Roethlisberger pitched him the ball on a shovel pass, on which he scored.
The extent to which this look was used waxed and waned over the course of the season, but we saw it again in another context in Week Seven against the Bengals. Set off-ball as the right tight end, the wide receiver was actually asked to slow down the defensive end on the back side of a running play, though it went for no gain.
He got more work in the run game out of that look on the other side of the bye week, again on the back side. Here he was charged with slowing down Barkevious Mingo, playing as a down lineman. This one actually picked up five yards.
This role picked up toward the end of the season, and we saw him come out of the tight end formation a handful of times over the last two weeks of the season. Against the Texans, he handled Javedeon Clowney on the back side of a 22-yard run for Le’Veon Bell.
And later in the same game, he was up in Marcus Gilchrist’s face at the second level as Bell crossed the goal line from 10 yards out. The team entrusted him with more run-blocking assignments out of this set as the year wore on.
Finally, in the season finale against the Browns, the Steelers tried to use him as a blocker to set up a screen pass for Eli Rogers. This one did not go particularly well, as Smith-Schuster and Villanueva could not time nor coordinator their blocks well enough for it to succeed.
Later in the game, he did take Jabrill Peppers to the ground on a run up the middle. The Steelers provided a bit of window dressing here with James pulling around the left edge. Stevan Ridley picked up eight on the play.
The amount of tasks that the Steelers threw at Smith-Schuster, who entered the season as a 20-year-old, was ambitious, but the manner in which he handled himself, and the assignments, was impressive. The tight end role was but a small wrinkle in his overall body of work, though I can’t help but imagine it will be put to greater use and executed more effectively next season.