JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t been shy about it this offseason: He wants to play on the outside more in 2021. Playing primarily out of the slot each of the last two years, Smith-Schuster has not come close to matching the 111 catches and 1,426 yards that he posted his second season when he won the team’s MVP award and spent half the season playing primarily out wide.
Pittsburgh’s receiving room has multiple players who can thrive in the slot or closer to the sidelines. Speaking at minicamp on Tuesday, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada discussed Smith-Schuster’s desire to play more outside, and how that can factor in with the versatility that many receivers, not just JuJu, bring to the team’s offense.
“I think the great thing about JuJu is he loves to win. I think he’s a tremendous competitor, I love how hard he plays, and he’s going to be excited and happy when we win. Obviously, JuJu can do a lot of different things,” Canada said. “Our job is to put players in a position to make plays. It’s not to run a certain play or a certain scheme or a certain anything. And if we believe putting anybody in any spot on the field gives us the best advantage to do that, and to continue to have defenses have to wonder what’s coming next, that is our challenge. And JuJu is more than capable as the rest of our wideouts to be in different spots.”
“So I think JuJu, our success at winning will dictate how happy all of us are. JuJu’s right in line with that. He’s had a great time when he’s been here, and he’s doing a great job.”
Central to that thought is Canada’s line eschewing a set alignment for players or set scheme to use, and instead doing whatever increases the offense’s chances for success the most. Transitioning from Randy Fichtner’s offense to his, that opens the door for Smith-Schuster and the rest of the team’s receivers to line up anywhere on the field.
The past seasons, JuJu hasn’t left the slot much. Diontae Johnson played exclusively out wide in 2020 and minimally in the slot in 2019. Chase Claypool saw some slot snaps as a rookie last year, but was primarily out wide, too. Ditto that for James Washington, though Washington did spent considerable time in the slot in 2019.
Any of those four has the talent to thrive in the slot or do damage out wide. Canada has indicated his love of the receivers’ versatility, and shifting the receivers from spot to spot would be a way to keep opposing defenses guessing. That would get Smith-Schuster his wish of lining up outside, but not without some time spent back in the slot, too.
But as Canada said, everyone is happiest when the team is winning. If maximizing on the versatility of the team’s deep receiving room is what gets those wins, that is what Canada will do.