PITTSBURGH — The script is becoming all too familiar.
“The safety was on my side,” Brown said matter-of-factly when asked about Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown Sunday against Denver’s single-high-safety defensive set.
Smith-Schuster’s ascension has had a direct impact on Brown’s production. While Smith-Schuster surpassed 1,000 yards in his second season thanks to his 189-yard display against the Broncos, Brown — with 71 catches and 874 yards — is on pace for his lowest yards total since 2012.
It sounds crazy given Brown’s greatness, but is Smith-Schuster the top option for the Steelers, at least right now?
Brown is targeted on 25.4 percent of his routes compared to 31 percent last year, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s 12 fourth-quarter throws Sunday at Denver, five targets went to Smith-Schuster compared to four for Brown.
Roethlisberger went as far as to say on his weekly radio show that he WIShed he threw to Smith-Schuster four times at the goal line and that Brown should have run a ‘flatter’ route on the third-down interception over the middle.
But much of this is by defensive design given Brown’s top spot on the scouting report, according to Broncos coach Vance Joseph.
“I’ve been in games where he’s beaten me single-handedly,” Joseph said. “The plan was to take him away, stop the run game as best we could with a seven-man box and just deal with 19 the best we could.”
This is a tough position for a player who’s as competitive as they come and sometimes shows it with sideline flare-ups. But even though Brown looks like he hasn’t lost a step, Roethlisberger has stated publicly that he didn’t want to force the ball into double coverages this season.
Defenses like to follow Brown closely with a corner and a safety shading over the top. Brown has seen press coverage on 54 of his 122 targets this season compared to 26 press-man targets for Smith-Schuster. The good news is that Brown has five touchdowns on those plays. The bad news is that 57 percent of those passing attempts were incomplete, including six interceptions.
Smith-Schuster is converting 58 percent of his targets in press coverage, with one touchdown and one interception.
As a beneficiary of Brown’s presence, Smith-Schuster is hoping his production will loosen up receiving lanes for his teammate.
It might trend that way soon based on where Roethlisberger is throwing the football. The Week 11 matchup with Jacksonville followed a similar blueprint, with Smith-Schuster catching four passes for 64 yards on five targets over the final two drives.
These Smith-Schuster numbers are hard to ignore:
Situationally, Brown is still very productive, while Smith-Schuster is having better success in certain areas:
While Roethlisberger believes his connection with Brown can be one of the all-time best, he’s also embracing the JuJu movement.
“He is reliable, dependable and trustworthy. I know he’s going to be in the right spot,” Roethlisberger said about Smith-Schuster’s game. “On that long touchdown, it was single high and you just kind of pick a side. They got pressure pretty quick. I saw JuJu went inside and I just let it go. You never really think it’s going to be a touchdown, just a completion for a big chunk.”
Brown is, without question, top five dead or alive. Since 2013, he has been the game’s most consistent receiver. He looks as explosive as ever, and his 11 touchdowns shows that his flare for the big play hasn’t dissipated.
Feeding both Smith-Schuster and Brown is a good problem to have.
But the second-year receiver wants more than a 1,000-yard season.
“I’m not satisfied,” he said.