JuJu Smith-Schuster wants to play on the outside more in 2021. What’s the benefit? The chance to increase his yards-per-catch, his overall production, and nine months from now, his wallet. Besides the cap retracting, the big reason why his market sucked was because he averaged 8.6 yards per reception on 97 grabs, one of the least efficient seasons by a wide receiver in history. He played well and his role was valuable but a broad look at his stats don’t tell that story.
So JuJu wants to function as the X or Z. But if you’re Pittsburgh, keeping him in the slot is the best thing for the offense. It’s his best role.
Where’s the compromise? Here’s the thing. Keeping Smith-Schuster in the slot doesn’t mean he’s destined to average under ten yards per grab. Slot receivers can run the entire route tree, including running downfield.
And there’s proof of Smith-Schuster doing that in Pittsburgh. He may have played more in the slot in 2020 than any year before but he’s spent a good chunk of his time playing inside. In 2018, a career-year, he caught 111 passes and averaged 12.8 yards per grab. And he made a ton of big plays out of the slot. There were two main concepts Pittsburgh used to get him downfield in the slot.
2. Slot fade
Let’s look at both.
That’s a route that bends across (or over, hence the names) the field. “Y over” is a popular concept a lot of offenses run but the Steelers get as much mileage out of it with their F (slot) receiver. It works against zone or man. Against zone, you can flood defenses with the extra receiver coming across the field or have the receiver work to find grass and get open for his QB. Against man, receivers can win if they have inside leverage pre-snap or if they’re able to create it in the stem of their route. When they do, the corner is no in trail position and has a tough play to make needing to play through the body (or if they undercut the route and miss, it’ll lead to plenty of YAC).
In 2018, Smith-Schuster had eleven receptions of 20+ yards out of the slot. Four of those, 36.3%, came on this concept. Here’s a look at all four.
In the first two clips, you can see pre-snap coverage indicators with Smith-Schuster on return motion, coming across the formation for a moment before returning to his original spot. How the corner/defense responds can tip off a man or zone clue.
Three of the four beat zone coverage with the other, against the Bengals, beat man.
To be fair to Pittsburgh, this idea wasn’t lost on them. Smith-Schuster was used on over routes plenty last season. But they primarily came in the red zone. Three of his nine touchdowns came on this concept in 2020, including a 25-yard score against the Colts in Week 16. It was a money red zone play but surprisingly, one they didn’t use outside the 20 too often. According to Dave Bryan’s study, he had only five receptions on over routes last season. Three of those found the end zone, meaning he didn’t have more than two outside the 20. Yet he averaged nearly 15 yards per grab.
Then there’s slot fade. Align in the slot and widen your stem down the sideline. The slot fade allows receivers to gain outside leverage without getting pressed against the sideline by the CB’s technique and leverage. Three more of JuJu’s eleven 20+ slot receptions in 2018 came on slot fades.
Here’s all three.
That included a 75-yard score to tie the game against Carolina, a nice smash/seam concept, getting the RCB to bite and Smith-Schuster running past him.
Again, using Dave’s numbers, Smith-Schuster was targeted on just one fade last season, a 28 yard catch. Why wasn’t he targeted more is a great question and speaks to the need to expand his route tree. He’s capable of doing it. He’s proven it, the team’s seen it.
Smith-Schuster is no doubt a valuable safety blanket and the team’s most trusted third down receiver. He should play in the slot a lot this year. But that doesn’t mean he has to run such a shallow route tree. Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp is a big slot receiver who had a much better average last season. Same with Tampa’s Chris Godwin.
It’s limiting his impact and what the Steelers’ offense can offer. And needs to change in 2021 for the good of the team and the good of JuJu’s future.