Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is not the fastest player at his position in the NFL, although he plays faster than many may still be giving him credit for. He is not the biggest, nor the strongest, either, though he does not lack for either in those two particular areas.
But one of the many qualities that separates him from the majority of his peers as he molds himself into one of the premiere young players at his position is that he is able to continue to make plays even when he is not necessarily ‘open’, or at least when he has little margin for error.
Known as a ‘contested catch’ when there is a defender in the area attempting to prevent a player from completing a catch, Smith-Schuster finished second in the NFL in 2018 in that category with 21 contested catches, according to Pro Football Focus. He also had 41 contested targets, also the second-most.
JuJu Smith-Schuster caught 21 of the 41 contested targets in 2018 – 2nd among NFL WRs. pic.twitter.com/yT962awTVe
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) March 22, 2019
We learn two things from this: one, Smith-Schuster is good in traffic; and two, Ben Roethlisberger trusts himself to make those throws and Smith-Schuster to complete them. He had a similar on-field relationship with Antonio Brown built on trust, though that did result in a lot of interceptions as well.
PFF doesn’t make their contested catch charting numbers available specifically, but from what I can find, it was the Kansas City Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill who took the cake last year in this category. Though he only had 20 contested targets, he caught 13 of them for a catch rate of 65 percent, the best in the league, and he turned those 13 catches into 12 touchdowns.
I can also piece together that DeAndre Hopkins ranked fifth in the NFL in contested catch percentage at 58.1, so Smith-Schuster’s catch percentage of 51.2 obviously ranks outside of that range, but may perhaps still fall within the top 10. It’s hard to say without further data, all of which is subjective anyway.
What’s more concrete is the tape, and we’ve certainly seen Smith-Schuster make those contested catches. He made a pair of them against the Jacksonville Jaguars working against Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, for example.
This skill is going to be called upon a lot in Brown’s absence in 2019, though that was already the case. It’s not as though his usage can expand a great deal. He already caught 111 passes for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns, making the Pro Bowl.
The slack will have to be picked up by second-year James Washington and free agent signing Donte Moncrief, both of whom have also been known in the past as being capable of making contested catches. Washington reportedly puts on a show in this area during practice, and we did see that in the preseason as well.