For the Pittsburgh Steelers last season, the coaching staff knew that the quickest way to get rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster on the field was the put him into the slot, in between Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. The latter two are used primarily to playing on the outside as it is. So Eli Rogers got shortchanged.
The rookie wasn’t limited to slot work, however, and by the later stages of the season he was seeing more and more time on the outside, especially by the end when Brown was injured. He has already overtaken Bryant in the starting lineup by that point as well.
But the question with Bryant now gone is this: how much of Smith-Schuster’s success from his rookie season was a result of his ability to exploit his natural advantages against slot defenders, and how will he handle playing more on the outside?
That is why I found a couple of Tweets recently made by Matt Harmon interesting. According to the NFL Network writer, Smith-Schuster was among the very bottom of the league in terms of the number of routes that he ran a season ago in which he was subjected to press coverage, only 20.5 percent. Fellow rookie Cooper Kupp was right there as well.
“I thought JuJu and Kupp would fail as outside WRs in the NFL”, Harmon wrote. “With this role, you don’t see their flaws. All of them faced zone coverage on [greater than] 40% of routes”.
According to Pro Football Focus, however, Smith-Schuster was productive both outside and inside. 36 of his 77 total targets came from lined up in the slot, along with 27 of his 58 receptions. 528 of his 917 receiving yards did come from that slot, though that is skewed by some long gainers, including a 97-yard touchdown.
Overall, he ran 246 of his 424 routes during the 2018 season from the slot, or 58 percent. You see those numbers shift dramatically in the second half of the season, though. From Week 10 on, only 99 of his 206 routes came from the slot, less than 50 percent. He had 12 receptions for 180 yards and one touchdown. Which would mean that he had 25 receptions for 318 yards and three touchdowns from the outside.
Harmon’s numbers don’t account for the late-season shift toward playing on the outside more, at which he would face press coverage more frequently, so until I can see an accounting for that—or for his actual performance in the scenarios in which he faced press—I have a hard time buying the implication that he would struggle if he had to play more on the outside against more press coverage.
Still, I think the plan this year might be to be more multiple and versatile. Brown and rookie James Washington are both also capable of playing inside and outside. Bryant was the main player more limited to the outside, and he is now in Oakland.