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2020 South Side Questions: Is JuJu Smith-Schuster Becoming A Possession Receiver?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now into the regular season, following the most unique offseason in the NFL since at least World War II. While it didn’t involve a player lockout, teams still did not have physical access to their players, though they were at least able to meet with them virtually.

Even training camp looked much different from the norm, and a big part of that was the fact that there will be no games along the way to prepare for. Their first football game of the year was to be the opener against the New York Giants.

As the season progresses, however, there will be a number of questions that arise on a daily basis, and we will do our best to try to raise attention to them as they come along, in an effort to both point them out and to create discussion

Questions like, how will the players who are in new positions this year going to perform? Will the rookies be able to contribute significantly? How will Ben Roethlisberger look—and the other quarterbacks as well? Now, we even have questions about whether or not players will be in quarantine.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Is JuJu Smith-Schuster now the Steelers’ possession receiver?

You probably don’t want to take on a less glorified role in a year in which you’re pushing to make as much as you can in free agency, but at least through the first three weeks of the 2020 season, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s year four is shaping up that way.

Through the first four games of the season, he is playing out of the slot more than ever, and his average depth of target is far more shallow than it has been in the past, with the average depth of the passes thrown his way being just five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. He is averaging just 3.2 yards before the catch per reception, and that number was more than twice as high in each of his two previous years, according to Pro Football Reference.

We have seen Ben Roethlisberger throw him a lot of balls in the flat and asking him to pick up yards after the catch—and he is, averaging 5.8 yards after the catch. That’s the same amount he had in 2018, and the fact that he matches that is impressive considering some of the big plays that he had that year that he hasn’t so far this year.

That means he’s doing a lot of grunt work on the perimeter, trying to stretch drives, and he does have 11 first downs (or touchdowns) so far this season on his 21 receptions. He has more yards after the catch than anybody else on the team, including Chase Claypool.

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