Anatomy of a WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster

By G.Stryker

JuJu Smith-Schuster was drafted in the second round in 2017 from USC, and burst on to the scene as a dependable, play making wide receiver with a high football IQ. As a rookie, he seemed polished beyond his years, as the Steelers quickly gave him more and more responsibilities as the season progressed.

JuJu started off the season as the slot receiver, beating out Eli Rogers, the returning starter, for that spot. He started to separate himself in the running game as an excellent downfield blocker. This started earning him snaps in 2WR sets and eventually the blocking receiver in 1WR sets as well. He never hit the rookie wall and ended the season strong. With Antonio Brown resting week 17 against the Browns, JuJu rotated through all 3 WR spots and finished the game with 143 yards and a touchdown. He also added a 94 yard kickoff return touchdown for good measure.

Let’s take a look at his rookie year highlights to see how he’s performing as a professional football player. These are cut ups, so it’s not always easy to see where he lined up, but I will do my best:

0:40 Looks like he’s running a 5yd drag from the slot. Reaches a little behind himself, without breaking stride, and still gets both palms on the ball, thumbs together. I forgot how big his hands are. Seems to just wrap around the ball perfectly. Nice run after the catch with a poor tackle attempt on the sideline, cuts back to get extra yardage, and lowers his head to deliver a blow on the tackle.

1:13 Jumps to high point the football, rotates his body to the QB, and catches the ball with great technique, thumbs together and both palms on the ball. He timed both his height and body rotation on this catch. Very difficult to do.

1:28 Running a drag, got his hands caught in the underneath (pinkies together) position and had to fight the catch a bit by using his chest for help. Should have brought his left arm up and caught the ball with his thumbs in. That technique would be more secure on this play.

1:39 Lines up at the X and runs a short drag under the slot receiver. Catches the ball thumbs together in front of his chest and makes 2 nice stiff arms to gain yardage after the catch. Protects the ball with both hands when tackled by 2 defenders. Good ball control.

1:50 Well defended. Tries to make a thumbs together catch with both palms, but misses the ball with his left hand. His chest deadens the ball with his right hand and he brings his left hand around to secure the ball against his chest. Then secures the football with both hands to assure possession.

1:57 Runs a short drag, possibly from the slot: Both hands up nicely, presented to the QB and catches the ball cleanly with both palms, thumbs in. Breaks a tackle and delivers a blow on the next defender downfield, just short of the first down marker.

2:10 Slot right, runs a 10yd drag. Ball slightly behind him, and he rotates his body to the football to secure it cleanly with both palms, thumbs in. Reverse angle replay shows how he protects the football with both hands on the tackle.

2:22 Slot right, running a fake WR screen to AB: JuJu and Jessie James both feign blocks, then continue running past the defenders. Both look for the football, but JuJu is open, and Ben Roethlisberger selects the correct target. Ball is under thrown, and JuJu has to slow down to catch the ball in the underhanded position, pinkies together. Looks like he has a little trouble securing the ball, but looks it into both hands, then covers it with both hands on the tackle.

2:44 Running a post: Makes a nice basket catch, elbows in, palms on the football, pinkies together, over the shoulder, for a wide open touchdown.

3:11 This was his longest catch of the year. If memory serves me right, he lined up in the slot and ran a seam pattern. Great throw giving him nice technique on the basket catch, in stride, elbows in. Outruns 3 defenders (and 2 shoe tackle attempts) for the TD.

3:44 Looks like a fly pattern, down the sideline from the Z position: Is well defended, attempting a basket catch, but the defender’s hand is also on the ball. He lets go of the football with his left hand, to allow the defending hand to slip off the football. The defender then tries to grab the football with his other hand. JuJu pins the ball against his shoulder and rotates his body, so the defender’s other hand loses contact with the ball. The defender is still on this left arm as the ball slides down to his gut. Here the defender tries again to hit the football and JuJu rotates his body again, with the football in his gut, jumps to create space, and lands with both feet inbounds to secure the catch. This is as tough of a catch as you can make in the NFL. The defender did everything right to knock that ball away. JuJu used his body to create space and shield the defender from making multiple plays on this ball. You can view all of these things really well on the reverse angle replay that follows.

4:03 Play action running a slant into the end zone: Looks like he one arms it with his body and right arm. The replay shows his left arm was not in position, but he uses it to pin the ball against his body. It is always toughest to catch pinkie to thumb, but since this was a one armed catch, the trailing hand wasn’t used in the catch, just to secure it after the body trap.

4:19 Running a sideline fly pattern: Great hand checking with the defender. Creating space, but not pushing off. Jumps, and rotates his body to catch the ball with his pinkies together. Both palms are on the ball, over the shoulder, using his body to wall off the defender from the football. Another tough, contested catch.

4:28 Running a post, and gets open behind the defender. Opens his chest up to the ball to catch it with perfect technique. Palms on the football, thumbs in, away from his body.

4:47 Le’Veon Bell gets the football out of the backfield on a short pass. JuJu comes back on a vicious crack back block on Vontaze Burfict. The hit of the year, and still questionable whether his helmet makes contact. Very close play, but JuJu’s intent and bulk of the hit, was a shoulder solidly planted into Burfict’s chest. A play that would make Hines Ward smile!

4:57 Running a flag: the ball is severely underthrown, and he has to slow up and reach back for it. Notice how his elbows are inside of his body frame, this helps make these low catches easier, since his arms are not making a hole large enough for the football to slip through.

5:06 In the X running a sideline fly route. Landry Jones under throws JuJu, and he stops and jumps to high point and attack the football in front of the defender. Reaches with both hands, away from his body, and places both palms on the football, thumbs in, to secure the catch, with a defender draped all over him. Here he uses his arm length to his advantage by keeping the ball away from his body, and out of the reach of the defender.

5:25 Kick return: Shows wiggle and speed, and uses 2 stiff arms to propel himself into the end zone for a touchdown.


JuJu is securely the #2 receiver on this team. When there are 2 receivers on the field, he is lined up in the Z. When there are 3 receivers, you can line him up anywhere, but he is currently the Steelers strongest slot receiver. Sure handed, excellent body control, and uses his body to shield off defenders. It is very difficult for the NFL to defend a slot receiver with size, since smaller, undersized slot corners defend these players. This is an advantage the Steelers used to give JuJu 900+ passing yards on 58 catches with 7 touchdowns.

Additionally, with his kickoff return in week 17 last year, he has shown that he can take it to the house. He will start on kickoff team, and with the league changing the kickoff rules, he may have more room to operate.

He is the best blocking wide receiver on the team, and the best the Steelers have had since Hines Ward. This season, if he stays healthy, I expect him to have over 1000 yards receiving. He has all the tools to be a playmaker in the NFL, and it will be interesting to see if he grows into a pro bowl caliber player this year.

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