While I don’t think that JuJu Smith-Schuster would ever had previously been mistaken as a premiere deep threat—not to say that he can’t make plays down the field, as he certainly has—the fourth-year wide receiver’s evident transformation in 2020 into a downlow, dirty-work possession target has been really quite something to witness.
Just consider the fact that, through his first three seasons in the league and his first 211 reception, the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver averaged a pretty robust 13.7 yards per reception. On 39 receptions so far in seven games of the 2020 season, he is averaging 8.9 yards per reception, which is conservative even for a pretty conventional tight end.
But that stems from the type of balls that he has been seeing all year, and the trend has been approaching the line of scrimmage nearer and nearer. By this point in the season, Smith-Schuster’s average yards before the catch per reception is all the way down to just four yards. It was over seven yards in each of his first three seasons. Likewise, his average depth of target has dropped from the 9-yard range all the way down to below six yards.
How does he reconcile this type of work in a critical contract year? At the moment, he is only on course to hit 89 receptions on the season for 791 yards and seven touchdowns. Those are not conventional ‘number one receiver’ numbers, though somebody will look at his usage and adjust their scouting accordingly.
“Third downs get you paid”, he told reporters yesterday. “How I see it is, you make those crucial catches that are gonna get you the first downs and move the sticks, and the dirty work—I love doing the dirty work, those inside, bang-bang catches, running across the middle and not being afraid to get hit, or scared to make those plays. That’s how I see it, and I do embrace those balls down the middle”.
Ben Roethlisberger has looked Smith-Schuster’s way 21 times so far in the first seven games, an average of three per game. He has come up with 16 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns, and, crucially, 13 first downs. The Steelers have converted or scored on over 60 percent of third-down targets in his direction.
Two of those targets have also resulted in interceptions, off of bad decisions or bad throws by Roethlisberger, including the third and final interception against the Tennessee Titans two weeks ago.
Against the Ravens, Roethlisberger targeted him three times on possession downs, resulting in three receptions and three first downs. That included a 3rd-and-1 conversion for two yards in the fourth quarter during the go-ahead drive.
The work he’s doing might not be glamorous, but it is one of the lowkey significant factors in their ability to start off the season 7-0, keeping drives alive, and so often due to not just his route-running but his after-the-catch physically on balls thrown short of the sticks, which is usually not recommended on possession downs, but which Smith-Schuster’s strength and willpower has made viable.