The Pittsburgh Steelers secured a crucial win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday. The victory moved Pittsburgh to 2-3 on the year, effectively getting them back in the mix of a jumbled and ultra-competitive AFC North division. The Steelers, unfortunately, did not escape unscathed. Reliable slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the contest.
It’s an incredibly difficult blow for an offense that has struggled to perform at an acceptable level even before injuries to their top pass-catchers entered the fray. Smith-Schuster serves as the team’s most trusted veteran receiver and is often utilized as Ben Roethlisberger’s security blanket. An impressive 57% of Smith-Schuster’s 323 career receptions have moved the chains. He’ll be sorely missed by a struggling offense that is still searching for an effective identity.
Smith-Schuster’s absence will leave a sizable hole in the slot. Smith-Schuster currently leads the team in snaps at the position after doing the same in 2020. His vacancy is expected to be filled by the speedy and shifty Ray-Ray McCloud, who now appears due for a large increase in playing time. It should also mean more snaps for James Washington, who is still recovering from an injury of his own. The former second-round pick has failed to live up to the billing since joining the organization in 2018 but should be on the receiving end of a few more targets as Pittsburgh begins navigating through life without Smith-Schuster in their lineup. Counting on either McCloud or Washington to make up the difference by their lonesome would require a leap of faith. Pittsburgh is more likely to find success by employing a group effort that in truth, will likely lean heavily on two familiar names in particular.
Even when Smith-Schuster is on the field, one could make a strong argument that Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson are Pittsburgh’s two most talented pass-catchers. That will remain the case. Both playmakers have regularly played on the outside since arriving in Pittsburgh, but have the ability to play in the slot on occasion. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada would be wise to take advantage of their versatile skill sets by moving them all around the formation now that he’s lost the reliable Smith-Schuster in the slot.
Smith-Schuster was averaging precisely 6.75 targets in the passing game. With those touches on offense now freeing up, look for the Steelers to get the ball in the hands of Claypool and Johnson on an even more consistent basis going forward. We expect a healthy dose of Washington and McCloud to keep defenses on their toes, but make no mistake, this passing game now becomes the Claypool and Johnson show.