The regular season marks the culmination of an extensive investigation into who your team will be that year. By this point, you’ve gone through free agency, the draft, training camp, and the preseason. You feel good in your decisions insofar as you can create clarity without having played meaningful games. But there are still plenty of uncertainties that remain, whether at the start of the regular season or the end, and new ones continually develop over time.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Ben Roethlisberger will be throwing (statistically significantly) more passes to tight ends following JuJu Smith-Schuster’s injury.
Explanation: While Diontae Johnson has become Roethlisberger’s favorite target, Smith-Schuster was still his most trusted, the player he turned to when he needed to get out of a jam. A lot of that had to do with his ability to work the middle of the field, something that the tight ends are also called to do.
Pat Freiermuth caught two passes for seven yards on third down on Sunday. Both of them converted. That sure sounds like a Smith-Schuster stat line to me. Freiermuth more than anybody will probably be the biggest beneficiary of the void the fifth-year wide receiver leaves behind.
While he does have one dropped pass on the season (hey, it happens to everybody), the rookie has already established a reputation for being a guy who catches everything catchable in his direction, and that is reminiscent of Smith-Schuster, who caught nearly 76 percent of his targets in 2020.
Down a starting wide receiver for the year, we’re probably going to see an increase in 12 personnel as well, especially as they continue to get the running game going, making it more likely, with more tight ends available, for the position to take on targets.
I think we’re at the tipping point where we see the Steelers running the ball more than they had been, and perhaps a lot more if they’re actually successful. Not every game is going to be like Sunday where they ran 35 times and passed 25 times, but the point is, some of those targets to Smith-Schuster they might call ‘run-game extension’ plays will actually now be runs, by a running back, on handoffs out of the backfield.
The bottom line, though, is this is still an 11 personnel offense, and they still have the wide receivers to run it, with James Washington being the next man up, a guy who has produced for them in the past. A guy who has been waiting for an opportunity to produce again, and who’s not going to give up that opportunity.