Ben Roethlisberger made it clear. There is no replacing JuJu Smith-Schuster. But unless Pittsburgh plans on playing with ten men on offense, someone will have to take his spot. Chase Claypool is an option but Ben Roethlisberger, speaking to reporters Wednesday, said the offense could use heavier packages moving forward, allowing Claypool to continue to play on the outside.
“Playing the slot position in the NFL is different than playing outside,” he told reporters via the team website. “It’s a different animal. We have a lot of guys who can do it but it’s a feel thing. You don’t want to take away a big body outside who has special skills.”
Few teams have a higher percentage of their downfield throws coming outside the numbers than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Claypool has served as Roethlisberger’s most targeted downfield receiver, a 6’4″, 230-pound receiver needing to find consistency but capable of making spectacular catches.
To Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster’s loss may mean the gain of bigger bodies.
“I thin you’ll see more utilization of the tight ends and the running backs. And different guys.”
Which may mean more 12 personnel and additional snaps for rookie Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth is sitting at 48% of the offensive snaps this season, playing 49% of the time in Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos. Based on Roethlisberger’s rough outline of things, the Steelers may be in 12 personnel more, allowing Claypool to stay on the outside as the team’s Z receiver with Freiermuth or Eric Ebron working over the middle of the field. Pittsburgh could get creative with their formations, standing either tight end up and playing a “big slot” type of role.
The good news is Pittsburgh had the depth to withstand a season-ending injury like that. James Washington was one of the league’s best #4 receivers and stepping into a #3 role isn’t anything new for hm. Freiermuth could become the team’s new sure-handed target and replace the key third down plays Smith-Schuster so routinely made.
There will be mixing and matching as the team figures out who they have and what works best for a particular gameplan or game circumstance. As Tomlin, Roethlisberger, and others have noted, an all-hands-on-deck approach in replacing Smith-Schuster’s skillset.