This offseason, most of the intrigue about the Kansas City Chiefs revolved around its wide receivers.
After the team traded Tyreek Hill to the Miami Dolphins in March, there were going to be questions about how Kansas City could replace his production. Hill’s gravity and speed helped engineer one of the best passing offenses of all time — which meant the Chiefs built a lot of their passing concepts around getting the ball to Hill. Without him, who would get most of the targets?
Throughout the offseason, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes repeatedly talked about spreading the ball around to many receivers. In each matchup, he kept reminding us, a different receiver (besides Travis Kelce) would have the most significant impact on the passing game. This, said Mahomes, would keep defenses guessing.
Through five weeks, it did feel that way. Justin Watson had a big game in Week 2. Marquez Valdes-Scantling played well in Weeks 4 and 5. Still, no one was emerging as the team’s top wideout.
Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen a shift beginning to happen. In the team’s games against the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers, there was a clear emphasis on getting the ball to Juju Smith-Schuster. Over the last two games, the former Pittsburgh Steelers receiver has had 13 targets for 12 receptions, 237 yards and two touchdowns — and these games were against two of the league’s best defenses.
How is he starting to emerge as the No. 1 wide receiver? Let’s dive into the film.
Back shoulder fades
Going back to his days in Pittsburgh, beating man coverage wasn’t Smith-Schuster’s best trait. When he was playing with Antonio Brown, that wasn’t a problem — because Brown’s gravity enabled his teammate to play in the slot — which kept Smith-Schuster from playing against heavy man coverage.
These WRs might as well be playing different positions. From their 2018 #ReceptionPerception samples...— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) March 3, 2019
- 76.5% of snaps outside
- 76.3% of snaps on the line
- 55.6% of snaps in the slot
- 59.7% of snaps off the line
Coverages they faced: pic.twitter.com/4gqzMTk24X
After Brown left, Smith-Schuster wasn’t nearly as productive as he had been. A lot of it had to do with his health and bad quarterback play — but without Brown on the field, Smith-Schuster also wasn’t beating man coverage at a high rate.
This is from 2021 #ReceptionPerception data.— Matt Harmon (@MattHarmon_BYB) October 17, 2022
- JuJu: 3rd lowest success rate vs. man coverage among WRs charted
- MVS: 7th lowest success rate vs. zone coveragehttps://t.co/PoVtAJKjys pic.twitter.com/shi7PnzfDO
With teams being so much more willing to play man coverage against the Chiefs (the NFL’s highest rate through five weeks), Smith-Schuster was going to have to find new ways to beat man coverage; against the Chiefs, teams were no longer willing to stick in zone coverage.
We're dealing with an incredibly small sample (2), but I love seeing the Chiefs hit Juju on the back shoulder vs man coverage— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 24, 2022
He's not tall nor vertically explosive, but his timing, strength, and coordination (plus his size) gives Mahomes trust to hit him pic.twitter.com/x1g4h5oabX
Smith-Schuster has never been a quick separator. He struggles to get off the line of scrimmage with consistency. He does have decent build-up speed — but if he needs to separate quickly (and get in and out of breaks fast), he just doesn’t have the athletic profile to do it.
He does, however, have a big body. He doesn’t play quite like receivers like Mike Evans or Deandre Hopkins do — but he has the size: 6 feet 1 and 220 pounds. He also has long arms and huge hands, which makes him a good target for back-shoulder throws.
Over the last two weeks, Mahomes has hit Smith-Schuster with two back-shoulder throws. Mahomes has now shown the willingness to pin it there — and Smith-Schuster has shown the ability to track the ball and pull these tough passes into his body. You won’t see him go up and get the ball (16th percentile vertical jump at his combine), but his coordination and strong hands do allow him to catch back-shoulder passes from oblique diving angles.
During his career, we haven’t seen Mahomes throw a lot of back-shoulder balls. This is simply because the Chiefs haven’t had a lot of ball-winning receivers. While Smith-Schuster doesn’t make contested catches in flashy ways, he’s shown the ability to win with his strength and coordination.
Love seeing the Chiefs design slants for Juju in a variety of ways (late slants, pick routes)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 24, 2022
The last clip stands out the most. No rub to get him a free release, but using his body to box out Charvarius
His hands/body are crazy strong, which allows Mahomes to pin it on him pic.twitter.com/iHnbpfFsj2
Now that Smith-Schuster has shown the ability to win on back-shoulder receptions, other routes open up — particularly slants. As the season began, we didn’t see Smith-Schuster get many targets on these kinds of routes — but in the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing it more often.
Some have come from a good design on a rub concept — but we have also seen Smith-Schuster box out his defenders, too. While he may not get off the line of scrimmage quickly, he can use his body to shield the ball from the cornerback. Combining that with his great hands and timing, he’s been able to win on these slant routes.
One thing I’ve always loved about Smith-Schuster’s game is that he’s one of the league’s most quarterback-friendly receivers; there are few passers who wouldn’t love having him among their targets. Why? His ability to be in the correct zone window helps build trust with the quarterback.
It sounds so silly, but I love seeing Juju on these quick hitting routes and the timing with Pat— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 25, 2022
Pat's timing with his WRs has never been pristine (some WR, some QB), but there's clear trust in Juju to be in the right spot every time, ready to catch
He's such a QB-friendly WR pic.twitter.com/rg4dbcJ8VT
When he’s playing on the outside, the Chiefs love targeting Smith-Schuster on simple hitch routes. You never see him drift too far outside — and he’s always on time with Mahomes. This has allowed the quarterback to consistently hit him on these routes.
I love seeing Juju being used as zone beater some— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 25, 2022
SF running match coverages here (brackets first clip, 3-site on the 2nd(?)), but Juju sitting in the right windows and making tough catches in zone is exactly what we brought him here to do
Also, the 2nd clip design was awesomen pic.twitter.com/62h6p4jG7H
On Sunday, the 49ers ran a lot of zone-match coverages. Having Smith-Schuster as a weapon against those coverages was helpful. The San Francisco secondary is very good at passing off routes to make throwing windows difficult. Having a wideout who can run to the right spots in these types of coverages is a big plus.
Smith-Schuster’s long touchdown was a beautifully-designed play. We see in the clip that the 49ers rotate their safety down into Cover 3; they appear to be playing some version of 3-site, where the rotating safety will take the first route to the flat. Kelce runs a corner route, which holds that safety down. Fred Warner is free to roam the middle of the field — but with Mecole Hardman running underneath, Warner is responsible for the first crosser. With no defender in the middle of the field, this leaves Smith-Schuster wide open on the curl route.
Smith-Schuster was ready in the right zone — and did his job after the catch — but Reid’s beautiful design made a big difference.
Yards after the catch
Fun stat about Juju: He's 8th in the NFL in YAC so far, 55% of his yards have come after the catch (274)— Nate Christensen (@natech32) October 25, 2022
Not the shiftiest player you'll ever watch but his contact balance is great and he's always moving forward (this is a subtweet) pic.twitter.com/0qimYwByOW
While Smith-Schuster doesn’t have Hill’s speed, he has shown an ability to get yards after the catch. On the season, he’s ranked eighth in YAC, with 55% (274 yards) coming after the reception.
Some of those have come on long runs, but make no mistake: Smith-Schuster runs hard. It sounds simple, but you won’t see him make a lot of people miss in space. Instead, he’s a bowling ball with a full head of steam.
When Hill left the building, the Chiefs lost a lot of potential post-reception yardage — and Hill continues to dominate after the catch. Still, this part of Smith-Schuster’s skillset adds to his value as an underneath weapon — and helps keep the offense explosive.
The bottom line
Regardless of which receiver steps up in a particular game, Kelce will continue to be the focal point of the Kansas City offense.
Still, having Smith-Schuster emerge as the top wideout is invaluable. While it’s cool to see players like Hardman or Valdes-Scantling make plays (like they did Sunday), neither has shown the weekly consistency to be the Chiefs’ volume receivers.
Smith-Schuster is starting to show those signs. He may not do it in the flashiest ways, but he is a calming receiver: he always runs his routes to perfection, has strong hands and shows ability after the catch.
Coming out of the bye, it will be important for the Chiefs to solve the hierarchy of their offensive load. Kelce will surely be at the top of the pyramid, but I hope we continue to see Smith-Schuster behind him; against these tough defenses, he’s shown that he can do it.
While Kansas City will need another weapon to step up in the playoffs, I expect Smith-Schuster to dominate the second half of this season.