Anything written pertaining to Pro Football Focus generates a lot of debate, even when it shouldn’t. I’m not going to weigh into the debate yet again, but I am going to present another piece of data that the site has recently supplied us with that I deem relevant.
The issue that many have with advanced analytics is that it introduces too much subjectivity into the system, and many question whether or not those behind the scenes at PFF are responsible caretakers of that subjectivity barometer.
That’s why I tend to prefer talking about elements that have a little more foundation to them. I think it’s easier to make a clear determination upon reviewing a play as to whether a cornerback is in press or off-man coverage, so I’m comfortable in presenting the following bit of information.
According to PFF’s data sets, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster generated the highest wide receiver rating on passes thrown against off-man coverage last season, among eligible players (those with at least 30 targets against such coverage).
For those uncertain about what a wide receiver rating is, it is the quarterback rating generated on passes thrown to a particular wide receiver. And according to the site, Smith-Schuster produced a rating of 140.3, which was the clear best in the NFL. Davante Adams was next at 133.2. Thomas Frank Carr wrote:
In total, Smith-Schuster tallied 660 yards after the reception last year, and 383 of those yards came against off-man coverage. His 10.7 yards after the catch per reception in off-man coverage was 2.44 yards more than the next receiver on this list.
That he generated nearly two and a half yards after the catch more than anybody else qualifying in the data set against off-man coverage is pretty stark, and for the record, that does not include his 97-yard touchdown, which was against press coverage, so we don’t have the outlier effect present year.
According to the numbers provided by Pro Football Reference, Smith-Schuster overall generated an overall wide receiver rating of ‘just’ 100.6 last season, catching 111 passes on 161 targets for 1426 with seven touchdowns and four interceptions thrown when he was targeted, so that fact gives an even clearer indication of how much he excelled facing off-man coverage versus press—or rather how the Smith-Schuster-Ben Roethlisberger combination performed.
As the Steelers’ top wide receiver, he is likely to see a greater percentage of press coverage coming his way in 2019, especially if he sees more time on the outside rather than in the slot. However, just because his rating when targeted may not have been as high in such instances doesn’t mean he can’t execute, as we have plenty of examples of him doing just that, and the interceptions thrown in his direction were not on him.