'I'll never be Antonio Brown': Breaking down JuJu Smith-Schuster's struggles without his former Steelers running mate

Sporting News

JuJu Smith-Schuster's third NFL season has been nothing that resembles his stellar rookie and second-year campaigns. But there are several reasons behind the Steelers wide receiver's first slump of his short career.

Smith-Schuster, through nine games going into Thursday night's matchup with the Browns, has 36 receptions for 503 yards and 3 TDs in 2019. That puts him on pace for 64 catches, 894 yards and 5 TDs. Last season, Smith-Schuster posted 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and 7 TDs. His numbers are now more in line with his rookie season, before he became a full-time player in Pittsburgh's passing offense.

Two things are clear: What Smith-Schuster has done as the Steelers' new No. 1 receiver without Antonio Brown has been disappointing. But Smith-Schuster (6-1, 215 pounds) also remains a special young talent at the position, one who turns only 23 in November.

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Here is a five-step breakdown of why things have gone south for Smith-Schuster, and why it's only a short-term development for the Steelers.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is now getting top coverage attention.

In last week's win over the Rams, Smith-Schuster had his third game in four weeks with limited production — 3 catches for 44 yards on 6 targets. It was the result of his being shadowed by Los Angeles cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who thought he added insult to Smith-Schuster after the game by trash-talking him, saying, "He's not Antonio Brown."

But Smith-Schuster showed his humility and maturity with his response.

"I'll never be Antonio Brown," he told reporters. "I am myself. I'm JuJu Smith-Schuster. I'm not as good as him yet. I think I still have time to proceed to get to his level. But we're two totally different persons."

This happens to every young receiver while making the transition from complementary playmaker to the featured one. The tone for a higher degree of difficulty this season was set when Smith-Schuster drew the Patriots' Stephon Gilmore in Week 1. And teams that don't have an elite corner like Ramsey or Gilmore have thrown double-teams at Smith-Schuster. He has great hands and runs smooth routes, but the tighter coverage has dropped his catch rate to 63.2 percent.

The good sign is that his yards per catch (14.0) and yards per reception (8.8) numbers are up. His average air yards per target also is up from 8.7 to 10.4. So while the short-to-intermediate work has not been as effective, when the Steelers can get the ball to him downfield, Smith-Schuster has responded.

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JuJu-Smith-Schuster-111219-getty-ftr

JuJu Smith-Schuster is not playing with Ben Roethlisberger.

In the two games Smith-Schuster played with Roethlisberger before the Steelers' venerable starting QB was lost for the season with an elbow injury, the WR caught 11 of 16 targets for 162 yards. With uncertainly surrounding his other targets, Roehtlisberger clearly was going to be locked into JuJu.

Smith-Schuster averaged more than 10 targets per game last season. This year, he has not been targeted 10 or more times once, and he has been targeted more than seven times in just three games. That's an indication of stronger coverage discouraging throws his way, but it's more so a product of a young QB not wanting to make mistakes.

JuJu Smith-Schuster is playing with Mason Rudolph.

That young QB is Rudolph, and in the one game he missed, the Steelers won a checkdown fest against the Chargers in which Smith-Schuster caught only 1 of 4 targets for 7 yards from undrafted rookie passer Devlin Hodges.

Smith-Schuster had his biggest game of the season with Rudolph in Week 8 against the Dolphins; he caught 5 of 9 targets for 105 yards and a TD. While he had no trouble connecting with Big Ben, Smith-Schuster and Rudolph have been more miss than hit.

It's not for a lack of effort, as Rudolph wants to get Smith-Schuster involved every week. But there also has been an emphasis on Rudolph protecting both the ball and himself. That means shorter passes to get the ball out of his hands quickly and fewer downfield shots at Smith-Schuster. The game plan makes sense, and the Steelers are 4-2 with Rudolph as their starter because of their sometimes-dominant defensive play.

They've been OK with Rudolph acting as careful caretaker, because unlike like last season with Roethlisberger, they're not built to throw with high volume.

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JuJu Smith-Schuster gets no help from a consistent No. 2 (or No. 3) receiver.

Remember Donte Moncrief's time as the the Steelers' No. 2 receiver? Neither do we. Rookie Diontae Johnson has flashed enough to suggest he could be the next Brown, or at least the next Emmanuel Sanders, but he also has struggled with inexperience. Rudolph's Oklahoma State connection with second-year downfield threat James Washington didn't manifest until Week 10 away from the Smith-Schuster vs. Ramsey matchup.

Johnson and Washington are trending in the right direction, but neither has been as good as Smith-Schuster was flanking Brown. The Steelers' defaulting to Moncrief solely based on experience also set them back in their development of other receivers.

When Johnson and Washington play well at the same time outside, it can help Smith-Schuster be more effective when he works the slot about half the time — a la the Buccaneers' Chris Godwin, who has similar size and skills.

Likewise, the Vikings' Adam Thielen has needed to play more outside this season, and facing different cornerback coverage, he hasn't been as consistently productive.

JuJu Smith-Schuster gets no help from a good running game.

The Steelers pride themselves on running the ball well, but even when James Conner has been healthy, that hasn't been the case in 2019. Pittsburgh goes into Week 11 with the NFL's No. 27 rushing offense at an average of 83.2 yards per game. The team also is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry.

Part of the problem is opponents focusing on Conner and/or his various fill-ins, daring Rudolph to beat them downfield. Smith-Schuster getting open deep requires more facilitation via play-action, a package the offense has not always utilized well. So either the Steelers have to become more proficient running on stacked boxes, or Rudolph must execute better when being aggressive.

Smith-Schuster is going through an adjustment process as a player, but the Steelers are going through an even bigger adjustment process as a team. He will keep improving and building on his talent to remain a top receiver in the long term, but the situation around him is more responsible for curbing his production in the short term.

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