JuJu Smith-Schuster might not be the best receiver in the league. But in those “gotta have it” moments, he might be at the top. At least, according to his quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger spoke about what it meant to see Smith-Schuster re-sign with the team this offseason. He inked a one-year deal with the Steelers, turning down more money from Baltimore and Kansas City.
“To have a familiar face, a guy that brings so much to this team,” he told reporters Tuesday via Zoom. “Is there a guy in the NFL that on third and medium and short you want the ball in his hands as much as JuJu? I don’t know, I couldn’t think of one.”
Though Smith-Schuster’s 2020 numbers were far from gaudy, averaging under nine yards per catch, the receptions he made often came in crucial moments. To Roethlisberger’s question, on 3rd and between 1-5 yards last season, Smith-Schuster caught 13 passes, tied for fifth-most in football. His 10 first downs were top 10 in the league and seventh among wide receivers.
With the Steelers’ run game non-existent, they used the short pass game as their go-to call on third and short. Slants, screens, and pick routes to Smith-Schuster. His hands and toughness make him a threat over the middle of the field, willing and able to run face-first into linebackers in order to make the play.
Losing him to free agency would’ve left a clear void in the Steelers’ offense. They still would’ve had talent with the likes of Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and James Washington. But no one on this roster has the skillset Smith-Schuster has. Roethlisberger was as thrilled as anyone to hear he circled back to Pittsburgh.
“I was really excited to get JuJu back. I felt like I was in his ear and in Coach Tomlin’s ear a lot during that process, the last kind of 12, 24 hours of JuJu signing back here.”
Smith-Schuster turned down higher-incentive deals to sign with Pittsburgh on a one-year, voidable contract worth $8 million. The void helps spread the cap hit over several years instead of just one, lowering his 2021 cap hit and allowing the team to bring him back.
A lightning rod for controversy over the last 12 months, Roethlisberger admires the passion Smith-Schuster players with.
“The passion that he gives to this city, to this team, to help us win is awesome.”
While Smith-Schuster is an asset catching the ball underneath, the Steelers’ goal should be to get him downfield more often in 2021, as they did in 2018 and 2019. He averaged just 8.6 yards per reception on 97 receptions. Jarvis Landry is the only other wide receiver in NFL history to have 90+ receptions for under nine yards per catch. From 2017 to 2019, Smith-Schuster averaged 13.7 yards per reception.