Danny Smith Praises JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Return Ability

Danny Smith made some interesting comments today about the lack of returners the Pittsburgh Steelers have, pointing out they probably have the fewest return-capable guys in the league. But he’s happy about at least one of the guys he has. Sitting down with Bob Labriola for this week’s Coordinator’s Corner, Smith said he was happy with how JuJu Smith-Schuster handled the onside kick return Sunday vs the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs lined up to kickoff with 2:21 left in the game and the Steelers up by six. Pittsburgh put out their hands team and lined up to protect against an onside kick, leaving Smith-Schuster all by himself near his own end zone. The Chiefs did boot it deep and Smith-Schuster fielded it cleanly, getting out of bounds to the Steelers’ 24. In Smith’s eyes, he checked every box.

“JuJu did a great job,” Smith said. “We got the ball back to the 24 yard line. Which coming off of an onside kick which is kicked deep when you have the hands team out there, you don’t have a whole lot of blockers out there. Or guys who block for a living…you have to do the best you can and get the field position.”

Danny Smith said he was happy Smith-Schuster ducked out of bounds, noting taking a hit is the last thing you want to have happen. There’s no chance for a great return and you’re only risking a fumble by trying to be cute with it.

“You prefer a guy not to take a hit because the only thing they can do is get the ball. JuJu played it well. We were properly aligned and played well and had all the situations covered and it came out good for us.”

Smith says he isn’t opposed to a player sliding instead but countered that “these guys aren’t baseball players” and not everyone knows how to slide effectively, especially in a high-pressure moment.

It’s certainly a stark difference to a similar situation last year. In the Divisional game against the Chiefs, Justin Gilbert – though he was trying to get out of bounds – returned the ball to only the Steelers’ seven yard line for what ended up being a net loss of two. Given the fact the sideline was taken away, Gilbert would’ve been best to get upfield and go down on his own. So credit to a rookie like JuJu for responding in the right way.

Still, the Steelers’ kick return unit has been the worst in the league. They’re averaging 14.9 yards per kick, nearly three yards behind the 31st ranked team with a long of just 25 yards, tied for second-lowest. It’s a predictable outcome after the coaching staff thrust Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson into the lineup for Week One after neither got any reps in the preseason and lack a college background in that area. Watson never did it and JuJu averaged 12 yards on a handful of tries.

It’s not that Smith-Schuster and Watson are bad options to be returners. In fact, they fit what the Steelers look for really well. Big. Tough. Physical. Experience carrying the ball. That makes it all the more baffling the team didn’t think to give them much of a look during the preseason.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • pcantidote

    I’m guessing they don’t trust Bryant to catch the ball. Otherwise he would seem like a scary good KO returner.

  • PaeperCup

    I wondered about that. I often wonder not being a professional footballer, what characteristics qualify and quantify someone to be a good kick returner.

    If it’s Watson, that can’t mean speed and elusiveness is the only thing. Last year we had Coates, so sure hands aren’t the key…

  • Alex Kozora

    Well his value is higher. And for this year, him coming back from suspension, waiting two weeks during camp, not much time to work him in (of course, didn’t stop them with JuJu/Watson).

    Also wonder that since Bryant is a really tall guy, there’s more surface area and bigger risk for injury/fumble at that speed.

  • Alex Kozora

    Biggest keys for Danny Smith

    Size. Toughness. Ball security. Decision-making. Speed/agility low on the list.

  • Guillermo Garcia-Gomez

    I still don’t see how big, physical, and experience carrying the ball is Tomlin’s idea of a good returner. They’ve literally almost never had an explosion play back there. They are last in the league in KO returns, which kills in field position, yet they’re the only team in the nfl with this strategy when picking returners. Hmm lol

  • Guillermo Garcia-Gomez

    How are these good keys to have for DS? Especially considering that none of these guys has ever had any big success, this seems baffling. I don’t think people make a big enough deal about this!

  • pcantidote

    Those sound like living in your fears keys to me.

  • Alex Kozora

    It’s just a different value system. Not saying if I agree or disagree, just how it is.

  • PaeperCup

    I didn’t even think of ball security. Hands, yes, but when the other team is coming full speed in a straight line from 50 yards down the field, you might want to be able to hang onto the ball. Not sure if Bryant has that box checked.

  • PaeperCup

    that’s one way of looking at it for sure.

  • Guillermo Garcia-Gomez

    Don’t think many special teams coaches at any level would agree with it lol. Completely destroys field position every time the ball is fielded, for the sake of ball security. My guess is it’s worth 1-2 fumbles a year from a guy that reached the 30-40 on a semi consistent basis.

  • nutty32

    Everyone loves Ju Ju. Gonna be a shoe in for mayor of Pittsburgh if this keeps up.

  • Reggie Cunningham

    This is best kid out of this year draft for the Steelers. He’s doing everything u can ask for

  • MC

    We haven’t had a good return unit for the whole time Danny Smith has been here. We’ve had some bad coverage units in some of his seasons also..
    I wouldn’t mind an upgrade at that coaching position to be honest, sorry to put a negative spin on the article.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    MC –

    I think your comments are fair. I understand that the Steelers organization is built on the principles of stability and loyalty. But we are also built on the principle of winning. And to win consistently, you have to push yourself to get better and better each year. In my opinion we are not progressing much on special teams.

    I believe Danny Smith has been the Steelers special teams coach since 2013. Here are our S/T rankings (league-wide) (1st to 32nd) (by yardage) in both kick offs and punts:

    2017 – 18th (opponent kick return yardage) 32nd (own kick return yardage)
    2017 – 21st (opponent punt return yardage) 26th (own punt return yardage)

    2016 – 30th (opponent kick return yardage) 17th (own kick return yardage)
    2016 – 24th (opponent punt return yardage) 16th (own punt return yardage)

    2015 – 10th (opponent kick return yardage) 14th (own kick return yardage)
    2015 – 18th (opponent punt return yardage) 16th (own punt return yardage)

    2014 – 15th (opponent kick return yardage) 27th (own kick return yardage)
    2014 – 22nd (opponent punt return yardage) 11th (own punt return yardage)

    2013 – 10th (opponent kick return yardage) 21st (own kick return yardage)
    2013 – 16th (opponent punt return yardage) 4th (own punt return yardage)

    Now, I understand that Danny Smith dos not have full control over the roster choices. But what does he do with the players he is given? Is he a good coach? Does he understand elite blocking/coverage techniques? Does he know how to teach those techniques in a way that makes players better?

    I believe the answer is no. At least not at any kind of “above average” level.

    By comparison, I believe Mike Munchak is an elite OL coach. He can take an average OL player and make them good. Or take a good OL player and make them great. I don’t think that applies to Danny Smith.

    I really don’t like to be that “fire the guy” type of fan, but I honestly don’t see what Smith brings to our special teams unit that any other average special teams coach couldn’t do. And it’s not one or two years worth of evidence. It’s five years.

    If I were Colbert, I would look to see if there is a way to upgrade that position coach this coming year. It would be nice for a change to be top 3 in the league in ANY one of the special teams return categories. It would take some pressure off our offense and defense and maybe win us an extra game or two. It’s worth the investment.

  • Steve

    Nice write up. Have been saying the past few years we need an upgrade in the Special Teams coaching. Danny is a less than average ST coach that was given a chance. Everyone likes Danny Smith’s loud mouth in Training camp, but he’s not doing his job and when the Steelers blew the Free kick in the Chiefs game, that was too costly.

  • FATCAT716

    I’m never a fire this coach or get rid of that player type but you made a strong case which made it difficult to avoid looking at Smith as a problem. I always liked his energy on side lines but he’s producing

  • falconsaftey43

    Our starting field position rankings are poor, but the ranges are pretty small. think more important is 1, no turnovers (failing there with 2 already) and 2, occasional big play (failing there too).

    2015-2017
    Avg starting field position after kickoff
    own 23, 27th (27 is the best)

    Opponent avg starting field position after kickoff
    their own 24, 20th (22 is the best)

    Avg starting field position after punt
    own 25, 14th

    Opponent avg starting field position after punt
    their own 25, 14th

  • Michael Mosgrove

    juju has been a return man?

  • Michael Mosgrove

    ding ding ding.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    been saying that for years.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    dunno about that he’s 1st on the team in penalties.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    But I mean.. returners or not, and Danny Smith being an awesome guy or not, you have to see the rankings and the run of low ranked special teams play for a number of years now – don’t you (I don’t mean you specifically, Alex)?

    Kicker and punter are good. AB returns a lot of punts. But overall, to beat the better teams at the end of the season, ST need to be above the line.

  • Michael Mosgrove

    danny smith is average at best. at best.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I think teams have different types they prefer. Steelers have never been trying to score as much as, like Alex says, bigger athletic guys who protect the ball and don’t make mistakes.

    The best returners I’ve seen, and by that I mean from my fans eye of what’s fun to watch, have been guys who have excellent vision and can burst to full speed quickly, usually not small, but bigger than punt returners with less of a quickness factor – if that makes any sense at all, ha.

  • Alex Kozora

    In college, sparingly.

  • Alex Kozora

    I think STs can be a lot more about numbers, Paul.

  • Reggie Cunningham

    He’s a rookie mike. As far as production. He’s the best looking rrookie.TJ had a couple of strong games but after the injury. He’s been quiet. Dobbs on the bench. Sutton hurt. Connor is not getting that many touches. So who do you have?