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Whatever happened to the deep passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster?

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

JuJu Smith-Schuster has had a solid 2020 campaign with 73 receptions for 600 yards and six touchdowns. His receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns are all up from last year, albeit he did miss four games due to a knee injury in 2019. The one stat that stands out is Smith-Schuster is averaging just 8.2 yards per catch and doesn't have a 100-yard receiving game this year. The most he's had was 93 yards receiving against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9.

In Smith-Schuster's rookie season he averaged 15.8 yards per catch, and 12.8 and 13.1 yards the last two years. His longest reception in a game this year is 31 yards compared to last year when he had a 76-yard touchdown reception and had a 97-yard touchdown reception in both 2018 and 2017, respectively.

Smith-Schuster had three 100-yard receiving games in 2017 and eight 100-yard receiving games in 2018. He had just one 100-yard receiving game last year and none this season.

Smith-Schuster was plagued with injuries last year and had to deal with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges throwing him passes, but this year he has served more as a dink and dunk option and run after the catch type of receiver. It has worked well at times as Smith-Schuster is a physical receiver that can bulldoze his way through defenders when he has the ball in space, but he's more valuable than just being tossed screen passes and 5-yard slants.

Smith-Schuster had 15 receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown in the last two games against Baltimore and Washington. That's an average of 4.3 yards per reception. That's not using Smith-Schuster to his strengths. Remember when Smith-Schuster had a 21-yard reception and a 35-yard reception down the left sidelines on back-to-back drives that set up touchdowns against the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2018 that led to a 20-16 comeback victory? Both were deep back-shoulder throws by Ben Roethlisberger to Smith-Schuster, one coming against All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and the other was against A.J. Bouye, who was a Pro Bowl cornerback.

Smith-Schuster said today in a Zoom interview with the media that his route tree has changed a lot from years previous, but he's willing to do whatever the team asks of him.

"Ideally, I have always felt like I can run downfield and catch those deep passes," Smith-Schuster said. "Compared to last year or two years ago, the route tree I was running was a lot different. This year everything is a lot shorter. At the end of the day whatever they put in front of me, that is what I am going to do."

Why Smith-Schuster hasn't been used more as a deep threat is puzzling. I know Roethlisberger is coming off major elbow surgery and his deep ball hasn't always been accurate this year, but he can still sling it down the field, as we saw with the 84-yard touchdown pass to Chase Claypool in Week 2 against the Denver Broncos. Averaging just 8.2 yards per catch on the season and having a measly 4.3 yards per reception in the last two games is just not good enough for a talent like Smith-Schuster. Randy Fichtner needs to start using him more to his skill set. Just look at his past production.

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