It’s no surprise that JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson lead the Pittsburgh Steelers in targets and receptions this year. They are the two wide receivers most responsible for working the short and intermediate areas of the field, in no small part because they are the best route runners on the team.
Both of them have been targeted over 100 times so far this season, Johnson seeing 126 targets and Smith-Schuster 107—15 more than the next closest, that being Chase Claypool, at 92. Smith-Schuster has 82 receptions, Johnson 77, which is 24 more than Claypool.
“I love JuJu in the intermediate because he can take some of those and turn those into a couple little plus 20, plus 25, plus 30 chunk plays”, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner told reporters about his top two wide receivers earlier this week, via transcript provided by the team’s media department. “He runs a guy over. He’s awful hard to get on the ground. You know Diontae can make people miss and all of the sudden pick up 20 on a short ball”.
Of course, outside of drops, the short and intermediate areas of the field haven’t been the problem areas in the passing game, at least until recently. The problem has been finding the deep ball. And because they haven’t been able to do that, defenses have been sitting on the short passes in recent weeks.
It’s no surprise that this has coincided with a three-game losing streak, as the offense has yet to find a way to adjust. Plain and simply, while there are certainly other issues, their inability to execute their short-area passing game without the defense jumping on those plays has had them spinning their wheels in the snow.
Both Smith-Schuster and Johnson have been doing well after the catch, between them collectively averaging about 4.5 yards after the catch per reception. Claypool is at 5.7 yards, but of course that is distorted by the long ball he had back in week two.
The problem is, you can’t be a human joystick on every play, and if the Steelers are not going to set up their shifty wide receivers with some open grass to run, then it’s going to be very hard for them as an offense to move the ball down the field in the absence of the chunk plays that have been—well, absent.