By The Hudsonian, Joshua Hudson
After Antonio Brown forced his way out of Pittsburgh and Le’Veon Bell took a big payday from the New York Jets, the Steelers’ offense became Ben Roethlisberger and a bunch of kids heading into the 2019 season.
I don’t know if you heard, but the Pittsburgh Steelers offense was abysmal last year. After Roethlisberger went down with an injury, the offense went downhill in a hurry. The kids all had three years or less experience in the league — Big Ben was supposed to help them grow. They had to learn in a hurry without him.
At the very least, optimism fills the Steelers offense now that Roethlisberger is expected to return healthy after his 2019 elbow injury. RB James Conner, himself suffering injuries over the past two seasons, begins the season healthy; WR JuJu Smith-Schuster dealt with injuries last year and is now the elder statesman of the wide receivers room; WRs James Washington and Diontae Johnson were the top two WRs on the team last year in their second and first year in the league, respectively; and the team added athletic TE Eric Ebron and WR Chase Claypool, arguably the biggest WR in the draft, to the offense this offseason.
Regardless of Big Ben’s absence last year, the offense lacked a dominant receiver as Smith-Schuster was expected to fill the shoes left behind by Brown’s exodus. Smith-Schuster wasn’t as effective while running outside — per PFF, his 30 targets for 17 receptions, 236 yards, and one touchdown was less than half of his production for the year. He also struggled (for the third year in a row) against press and man coverage. Per Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, Smith-Schuster was in the twenty-fourth percentile against man coverage and in the twelfth percentile against press coverage. Numbers like that should tell you a player is best suited in the slot, where defenses employ less man and press coverage.
So is there a wide receiver on the Steelers who can fill that Antonio Brown role and be Big Ben’s preferred target?
The short answer: Yes.
The Steelers drafted WR Diontae Johnson out of Toledo heading into the 2019 season off a down year, likely due to poor quarterback play. His 2018 was fantastic though — 104 targets for 74 receptions, 1,278 yards, and 13 touchdowns. He was regarded as one of the best route runners in last year’s draft class, and that showed on film during the 2019 season. Looking at Harmon’s Reception Perception, Johnson cleared the eightieth percentile in success rate against both man and press coverage last season. According to Fantasy Data, he also led the league in separation created per target at 2.39 yards. Those types of numbers are what you want from an outside receiver.
When looking at the breakdown of Steelers receivers last year, Johnson should be penciled in as the X receiver and Smith-Schuster in the slot. Johnson’s numbers last year may not have wowed anyone (11.5 yards per reception and 42.5 yards per game are rather pedestrian), but when you add in competent quarterback play, Johnson has a chance to reach heights last seen by the enigmatic Antonio Brown. Johnson’s yards per route run when running on the outside was 2.89, per PFF. You know who else put up comparable numbers in Pittsburgh in 2017 & 2018? I think you’ve heard of him.
Brown’s last two years in Pittsburgh produced over 160 targets and 100 receptions each season. He also averaged 12 touchdowns and over 1,400 yards those two seasons. Yes, we’re getting into a completely different stratosphere trying to compare a second year pro to arguably the best receiver in the NFL over the last decade, but hear me out. People want to assume that Smith-Schuster will be the Steelers receiver you want to draft in Fantasy (his current ADP of WR12 per FantasyPros further exemplifies that point), but when you look at when he has succeeded as a pro, it’s been when an outside receiver demands most, if not all, of the defense’s attention.
Smith-Schuster’s breakout 2018 came when Roethlisberger threw the ball for a career high 675 times and Brown saw 168 targets. Coming off an elbow injury, it’s highly unlikely Big Ben will throw that many times in 2020. In fact, he’s only topped 600 pass attempts in a season twice in his career, and over the first 15 years of his career, Roethlisberger has averaged only 478 pass attempts per season. If you take out all the missed games due to injury, he averages 531 attempts over a 16-game season. Roethlisberger’s WR1 has had less than a 23% target share only once from 2011 to 2018. His number two pass catcher (yes, sometimes that’s a running back or, in extreme circumstances, a tight end) has topped 18% target share five times in the same span.
I have Roethlisberger projected for 531 attempts (the team at 587). If we use a 23% target share as a barometer for the Steelers’ WR1, we’re looking at 135 targets. The second pass catcher at 18% would be around 106 targets. I have Johnson projected for 129 targets and Smith-Schuster for 117 targets. Would you want to bank on a receiver who delivers less than half of their production when running on the outside being a top 12 receiver with Big Ben at quarterback? The evidence suggests otherwise. Given the history of Roethlisberger’s tendencies, it’s not hard to see JuJu disappointing at his current draft price with Johnson, whose ADP currently sits at WR38, far exceeding expectations. Yes, Roethlisberger has been adamant about JuJu being “his guy,” but wait until he gets a good look at Diontae Johnson. It wouldn’t shock me one bit if he saw shades of Antonio Brown in Johnson’s game.
And we’ve all seen how well that’s worked out for Roethlisberger and the Steelers in the past.