Will the Pittsburgh Steelers head into the 2019 season with wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster as their number one player at the position? That will depend upon what happens over the course of the next two months between the team and nine-year veteran Antonio Brown. And if that situation unfolds in a way that results in the team trading him away, Smith-Schuster will have a lot on his plate.
While the 22-year-old led the team with 111 receptions for over 1400 yards—the second-most, and most, by any Steeler other than Brown in team history, respectively—and finished second behind Brown in touchdowns with seven, he knows as well as any that many of the opportunities that he has gotten on the field have been a byproduct of how teams choose to play his teammate.
About a month and a half ago, while Smith-Schuster was emerging as Ben Roethlisberger’s preferred target, Smith-Schuster talked about how important Brown had been to his ability to put up the sort of numbers that he was showing.
He talked about Brown “getting double-teamed, triple-teamed” with regularity, yet even though he still makes his plays through that, it allows everybody else to “eat off his plate because of what he’s done in the past”.
We have shown a few times this season examples of plays in which the way in which a defense chose to cover Brown directly provided the opportunity for another player to make a play, whether it’s literally committing three defenders to him or a safety simply favoring him in a bunch formation for a split second. We know this happens
So if Smith-Schuster goes from being Brown’s number two guy to being the top of the depth chart with James Washington and Eli Rogers surrounding him, that is going to substantially change the way in which he is played by teams.
That wasn’t necessarily true for how the Cincinnati Bengals defended him in the season finale when Brown did not play, but they were a secondary dealing with injuries, and it also was not apparent early enough that he would not be playing.
Brown himself became the Steelers’ top target only in his fourth season in 2013, emerging as a full-time starter as Hines Ward retired and Mike Wallace left in free agency. His first season as a starter in 2012 was unspectacular, but he caught 110 passes for 1499 yards and eight touchdowns a year later.
Of course, he did that because he has supreme talent. Smith-Schuster has a tone of talent, but does he have the sort of talent that can carry a wide receiving corps—an entire offense—as the top billing? Hopefully we won’t have to answer that for at least three more years.