With Justin Hunter now on injured reserve and Darrius Heyward-Bey scarcely more than an emergency option in the event of an injury, the Pittsburgh Steelers have an interesting makeup at the wide receiver position right now in terms who which bodies that they have available to them for either the inside or outside roles.
The nucleus of this discussion is second-year wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has by this point in his career spent a lot of time playing both inside and outside. He started in the slot a year ago but played more outside as the year went on, and that same theme has continued this year.
Up through the first 10 or so weeks of the season, in fact, Smith-Schuster led the league in yards from the slot, a designation he was recently overtaken in by Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. But that is only because he has begun to play more on the outside in recent weeks.
The more outside opportunities have come largely due to the emergence of Ryan Switzer, and could be strengthened if Eli Rogers, another slot presence, is activated from the Physically Unable to Perform List. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner talked about the importance in that inside presence, per the team’s communications department.
“It’s hard to have one you trust enough let alone maybe two”, he said of having a reliable slot receiver. “And when you start pushing the envelope with guys who can handle that inside position and yet they can go outside, it’s a luxury”.
With Smith-Schuster easily able to gravitate between the inside and the outside fluidly within a single drive, the Steelers are better able to select their matchups. This was an important piece of their comeback over the Jacksonville Jaguars a few weeks ago.
“It really helps because you can move JuJu around to all the spots”, Fichtner continued. “It’s a compliment to him really in his second year…He’s capable of playing inside and out”. He went on to talk about Rogers playing in the inside, but would not divulge if he would be available on Sunday.
The wildcard in this discussion remains rookie James Washington, who has had a tumultuous year, struggling to be an efficient contributor. Some of that has been outside of his control, to be sure, but his inability to lock down a starting job has made Smith-Schuster’s inside-outside versatility all the more essential to have at their disposal.