Film Room: TE One Of Many Hats Worn By JuJu Smith-Schuster In Ambitious Rookie Year

Perhaps not since Bill Dudley back in the early 1940s have the Pittsburgh Steelers asked a player as young as rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster to wear as many hats as he has this season—and Dudley didn’t even have to manage his burgeoning social media empire or find his stolen bike.

From the season opener on, the Steelers have put the second-round pick in a diversity of roles, initially rotating in the slot while taking some snaps on the outside as well as fulfilling obligations for most of the season as the team’s primary kick returner.

But one of the more overlooked ‘hats’ that he has worn this season has been actually playing in the role of a tight end. It hasn’t been often—around a dozen snaps or so on the season—but it has been notable, and is a role they have installed this year. Even when he didn’t play, the team put Darrius Heyward-Bey into that role, so it’s something that they want to do.

The first time we saw this came back in week two, and it was a pretty big deal for the rookie. It was his first offensive touch, and his first touchdown. Lined up shaded beneath Jesse James off the left side, who was tucked up next to Alejandro Villanueva, Smith-Schuster swept to his right as Ben Roethlisberger pitched him the ball on a shovel pass, on which he scored.

The extent to which this look was used waxed and waned over the course of the season, but we saw it again in another context in Week Seven against the Bengals. Set off-ball as the right tight end, the wide receiver was actually asked to slow down the defensive end on the back side of a running play, though it went for no gain.

He got more work in the run game out of that look on the other side of the bye week, again on the back side. Here he was charged with slowing down Barkevious Mingo, playing as a down lineman. This one actually picked up five yards.

This role picked up toward the end of the season, and we saw him come out of the tight end formation a handful of times over the last two weeks of the season. Against the Texans, he handled Javedeon Clowney on the back side of a 22-yard run for Le’Veon Bell.

And later in the same game, he was up in Marcus Gilchrist’s face at the second level as Bell crossed the goal line from 10 yards out. The team entrusted him with more run-blocking assignments out of this set as the year wore on.

Finally, in the season finale against the Browns, the Steelers tried to use him as a blocker to set up a screen pass for Eli Rogers. This one did not go particularly well, as Smith-Schuster and Villanueva could not time nor coordinator their blocks well enough for it to succeed.

Later in the game, he did take Jabrill Peppers to the ground on a run up the middle. The Steelers provided a bit of window dressing here with James pulling around the left edge. Stevan Ridley picked up eight on the play.

The amount of tasks that the Steelers threw at Smith-Schuster, who entered the season as a 20-year-old, was ambitious, but the manner in which he handled himself, and the assignments, was impressive. The tight end role was but a small wrinkle in his overall body of work, though I can’t help but imagine it will be put to greater use and executed more effectively next season.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Mike Rowan

    That’s incredible. I don’t understand why voting for ROY, HOF, etc. doesn’t take account of things like this a lot more. If it did, then I’d think Hines Ward should be a lock for the HOF and Smith-Schuster would have been an easy call as an OROY finalist. This is the stuff we all know is what separates great teams from the rest and it’s not as though it’s not quantifiable (if that has to matter). Instead, it seems only fantasy-relevant stats matter.

  • WB Tarleton

    It’s a shortcoming of the process. Media members pick and most of them may see 2-3 Steelers games per year and definitely do not break down their tape to see how a WR blocks. They do not see the nitty gritty stuff done by players game to game, nor could they. Heck, Gruden called William Gay by another first name three times during the Bengals game. lol

  • Matt Rippin

    The Steelers really need to continue to pursue this. If you can force a defense to deploy its nickel personnel and then jump into what’s effectively at 2TE set, I don’t know how you stop this running game.

  • Generic Steelers Fan

    Ah man that last gif was so good

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Matt. This is an excellent article.

    I remember at the time they drafted JuJu (at 225-ish pounds) I thought it was a possibility that they wanted him to play some hybrid TE but I forgot all about it until you posted this.

    The Steelers have always drafted dual threat TE’s who can block, but we have also shied away from the pure receiving TE’s, which has often hurt us in the passing game. If JuJu continues to line up like this, I think you will see opposing defenses try to cover him with a SS (because if they leave a CB on him, we will simply check down to a running play and demolish him). And JuJu can get separation on a SS fairly easily.

    This is something Bryant and Hunter and even Hey Bey can’t do. It makes so much more sense now, why Colbert classified JuJu as the clear BPA in round 2.

  • Mike Rowan

    Good point. There’s so many different options that it gives them. If MacDonald can stay healthy, their defense shouldn’t have to be much better than average.

  • Intense Camel

    Why not use Nix at TE some?

  • Mike Rowan

    Agreed, though some of it, especially when it’s really obvious, sports writers and commentators recognize live, or week-to-week, but then seem to ignore when it comes down to voting.

  • Mike Rowan

    His block on Clowney is particularly amazing.

  • If memory serves…didn’t Juju ice a tight game earlier in the season by taking a shovel pass and converting a ‘third and short’ or ‘fourth and short’ [2 or 3 yards], allowing us to run out the clock? Was he lined up then in the slot or as a WR?

    Btw, I found it. It was the Lions game, 3rd and 1, and Juju was lined up inside and to the rear of Jesse James on the right side of the formation. He took the shovel pass for three yards for a first down, allowing us to run out the clock. It was perhaps one of his most impactful plays of the year [among many].

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    Yep, and you could see the size and strength difference between the two.

  • Matthew Marczi

    They have, actually, though even less frequently than with Smith-Schuster. The tackle-eligible they used for around 100 or so snaps all told between Hubbard, Finney, and Hawkins.

  • Intense Camel

    Nice

  • dany

    To be fair, the other impressive rookie WR this year (who won’t win the award either) is a tremendous blocker too

  • Steve

    Pouncys pancake in the last gif was sweet. For once, I would like to see Jessie James really hit somebody, Anybody. In the last gif seems he runs around people.