JuJu Smith-Schuster is not exactly blowing the doors off the 2020 season. His first game has so far been his best, statistically, by a substantial margin, catching six of six targets for 69 yards and two touchdowns. He has scored one touchdown since and hasn’t hit 50 yards in a single game. On Sunday, he hit a low point with just two catches for six yards.
Granted, the Pittsburgh Steelers also took the air out of the ball for much of the game as well. They held a 10-point lead or greater for the vast majority of the game, so their focus was on the running game by a good margin. Ben Roethlisberger only dropped back 23 times.
Still, James Washington was able to put up some numbers and make some big plays. Chase Claypool had a handful of catches and a big play that nearly got into the end zone (he scored on the ground again, however). Is their success a product of defenses keying on Smith-Schuster? How much of that is a factor?
“A lot”, Washington told reporters earlier today, when asked about how much opponents key on the fourth-year man, “just because of the resume that he’s built over the years. I feel like he will never go into a game unnoticed, so I feel like people definitely key him, and then when that happens, us other guys, we just have to capitalize on our opportunities and make stuff happen for the offense”.
Even though he leads the team with 23 receptions—five more than anybody else—Smith-Schuster is averaging just 8.4 yards per reception, which is bad even for a tight end. In fact, outside of Claypool, everybody’s efficiency numbers are strikingly low this year in terms of yards per reception.
Through five games, the pending free agent is only averaging 39 yards per game, and is on pace to finish the season with just 621 receiving yards, though he is also tracking toward scoring 10 touchdowns, which would be a career-high. Still, 621 receiving yards won’t get you paid like a number one receiver.
While I have no doubt that opposing teams are paying a lot of attention to Smith-Schuster this year, that is too simplistic an explanation for his numbers. Part of it is Roethlisberger, quite frankly, still finding himself in the passing game, so focused on throwing the short passes, or as the team would call them, run-game extension plays.
I think the passing game will expand and open up as the season goes on, and Smith-Schuster will have a season more representative of his usual status. There is nothing that he is actually doing wrong in the passing game. It’s not as though he’s being constantly blanketed, no longer capable of getting open. He just hasn’t been getting the opportunities.