JuJu Smith-Schuster Could Be the Steelers' X-Factor Against the Jaguars

Can the rookie wide receiver make an impact against the league's best secondary?

The Week 5 matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers will undoubtedly be remembered for Ben Roethlisberger’s five interceptions, and rightfully so. The 30-9 Jaguars win was a coming out party for a defense that would finish the season ranked first in Adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) per play. Jacksonville left the game with a record of 3-2, and a loss to the Los Angeles Rams the following week would be the last time they weren't over .500 during the regular season.

All of this will certainly be brought up ahead of a rematch during the Divisional Round. What will get less coverage on that side of the ball is how the Steelers had some success through the air between interceptions. Roethlisberger threw for 312 yards in that game, the most given up by the Jaguars during the regular season — though it took 55 passes to get there. Antonio Brown saw the biggest percentage of those throws — 19 targets for 10 receptions and 157 yards — but he’s coming off an injury and it’s unknown if he’ll be close to 100 percent.

An underrated piece in that game came from the work of rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, which could play a bigger role this weekend.

Among the Best

Throughout his rookie season, Smith-Schuster played a few roles for the Steelers offense as both a slot and outside receiver. He was on the field for 63.7 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps, which was the second most among their wide receivers, behind Brown (80.3 percent) and just ahead of Martavis Bryant (61.6 percent). He was only targeted 79 times during the regular season, but was one of the most efficient receivers in the game.

Among the 85 receivers who saw at least 50 targets in 2017, only Marvin Jones had a higher Reception NEP per target than Smith-Schuster. His 0.97 Reception NEP per target means the Steelers added nearly a full expected point each time Smith-Schuster was thrown the ball. Not a reception, just thrown in his direction.

Smith-Schuster got there by just being generally good. He wasn’t particularly reliant on big plays (his 12 receptions of 20 or more yards was tied for 24th in the NFL) or touchdowns (he was tied for 19th with seven scores).

Bigger Impact

That brings us back to the Jaguars game and where he can pick up where he left off. During that Week 5 game, Smith-Schuster only had 4 receptions on 6 targets for 58 yards, but he helped exploit one of the few weak points in Jacksonville's secondary — the middle of the field. If you have to throw on the Jaguars, that’s where you want to do it.

Jacksonville has Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye at cornerback and the two typically stay outside. Per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders, Ramsey and Bouye ranked 7th and 12th in Success Rate among 81 cornerbacks targeted at least 50 times. They’re good. What’s typically not as good is the space in the middle of the field not covered by those two.

Below is the Success Rate — the percentage of plays that positively impact NEP — allowed by the Jaguars defense broken down in six sections of the field.

2017 Success Rate Left Middle Right
Short 44.36% 55.43% 41.72%
Deep (15+) 30.56% 40.00% 30.77%

Splitting the field by short and deep passes (15 yards or more down the field), it’s easy to see the Jaguars allow more to happen in the middle. At each depth, the Success Rate allowed is much higher than on the outside. On short throws, quarterbacks go from a level equivalent to 2017 Joe Flacco and Eli Manning targeting the outside to just below the best quarterback in 2017 (Jimmy Garoppolo’s 56.4 percent) down the middle. That’s a huge difference.

Pittsburgh took advantage of this a few times against the Jaguars in their first meeting. Late in the second quarter, the Steelers were only down 7-3, had a 1st-and-10 from their own 39 and lined up with 11 personnel (three wide receivers). Before the snap, Smith-Schuster went in motion from the left to right, followed by Aaron Colvin. The receiver ran a post route up the seam and found a hole between the slot corner and the single-high safety for a fairly easy gain of 21 yards.

Later in the fourth quarter, down 22-9, the Steelers ran a similar concept. This time, Smith-Schuster started on the right side of the formation, but the end result was the same. He looped around Colvin and again found a hole between the corner and Tashaun Gipson for a 14-yard gain.

These are the types of plays the Steelers and Smith-Schuster made work all season and they should be what works best against the Jaguars defense. Pittsburgh is still an overwhelming favorite due in most part to their advantage on the other side of the ball, but they could make it easier on themselves by finding a quicker way to success when on offense.

Much of the attention goes to the stars of the Steelers, but the biggest key could be the rookie wide receiver and it may not be too long before Smith-Schuster plays his way into that group, himself.