2021 South Side Questions: How Will Steelers Replace JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Role?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is underway, and they are hoping for a better outcome in comparison to last season. After starting out 11-0, they finished the year 1-4 in the regular season, and then lost in the Wildcard Round to the Cleveland Browns, ignited by a 0-28 first quarter.

They have lost a large number of key players in the offseason, like Maurkice Pouncey, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson, but they’ve also made significant additions as the months have gone on, notably Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, and Ahkello Witherspoon. They also added Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, and Dan Moore Jr., all of whom are starting.

There isn’t much left to do but to play the games at this point. Even if they play them poorly. They still have a lot to figure out, though, such as what Matt Canada’s offense is going to look like in any given week, or how the new-look secondary and offensive line is going to play.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: How will the Steelers replace JuJu Smith-Schuster’s role within the offense?

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has been the Steelers’ primary slot presence for the past five seasons. They’re going to have to figure out how to do without him in that role—and who to fill that role—for almost surely the remainder of the 2021 season after he suffered a shoulder injury that reportedly will require surgery.

Of the 200-plus snaps the fifth-year veteran has logged on offense so far this season, well over 150 have come inside of the formation. His slot numbers more than double the rest of the slot snaps for the rest of the wide receiver group combined.

So how do they go about replacing him? First and foremost, Smith-Schuster’s absence should put James Washington in the starting lineup. Both he and Chase Claypool have spent a not insignificant amount of time in the slot, and I know Dave Bryan in particular thinks Claypool should be a good fit there—I tend to agree.

Smith-Schuster himself said leading up to the start of the season that he believes Ray-Ray McCloud is the second-best slot receiver on the team, behind himself. He has actually played close to 150 snaps already this season, including 34 on Sunday—27 of those snaps in the slot.

But Washington was out for that game with an injury, so I don’t think we can conclude that is what the plan will be when Washington is healthy—presumably this week. There are reports that the team will be bringing in Anthony, who is primarily a slot receiver himself, so will he ultimately become the Steelers’ number three receiver and absorb the bulk of the slot snaps? He saw 550 snaps in the slot in 2020 out of about 600 total.

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