Does Smith-Schuster really have a fumbling problem?


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JuJu Smith-Schuster. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

We've seen the JuJu Smith-Schuster fumble late against the Ravens countless times.

You know, this one:

That's Smith-Schuster getting robbed by Marlon Humphrey in overtime. A would-be first down turned into "game over" in a flash. The Ravens took over, Justin Tucker did some Tucker stuff, and the Ravens took the 26-23 win home with them, dropping the Steelers to 1-4 in the process.

The blowback toward Smith-Schuster was fierce. Our Dejan Kovacevic wrote a column about it. Steelers Twitter nearly melted to the ground. Making matters worse:

That's Smith-Schuster last year in a nearly identical circumstance. Game on the line, driving downfield, fumbling it all away on the road against the Saints. Combined, those two plays earned Smith-Schuster a label as a fumbler. They're huge. They greatly and single-handedly affected the outcome of the game. That can't be denied.

But that label can be disputed all day.

The thing about those two fumbles from Smith-Schuster is this: They're the only two times he's ever fumbled in his career.

In 35 games played, Smith-Schuster's touched the ball 203 times (193 receptions, one rush and nine kickoff returns). He's fumbled twice, a 0.00985 fumble-per-touch rate.

Those are some numbers. They don't mean much without context, eh? So here we go (tap or click the image to expand):


Now we're getting somewhere.

I chose a mix of prominent Steelers receivers, as well as currently great and historically great receivers to see how it all shook out. Oh, I also picked Nate Washington (a random Steelers receiver) and Kenny Stills (a random current receiver) just because. Would two randomly selected receivers stand out in any meaningful way? Turns out, yes. Yes, they do. They have the top-two lowest fumble rates out of my sample.

My guess: Those two got the ball in low-leverage situations, solely as possession-based receivers and thus didn't fumble as much as the others who saw more prominent roles and moments.

A second layer: The bottom three — Antwaan Randle ElSantonio Holmes and Louis Lipps — all logged over 70 touches on kickoff or punt returns. Randle El, in particular, registered 201 touches on special teams during his first three seasons as a pro. Only Antonio Brown rang up special teams touches in that range and didn't fall into the bottom three. There's no doubt special teams play increases the likelihood of a fumble in this data set.

So it's complicated. Smith-Schuster's numbers look incredible. But until this year, he had seen more of that secondary-option role mentioned that Stills and Washington enjoyed in the past. Less pressure, safer routes, fewer expectations. But there's also no doubt he performed better — and touched the ball more frequently — than those two ever did.

Two fumbles in 203 career touches represents a spectacular rate. Plaxico Burress, with zero punt or kickoff returns, fumbled four times in his first 166 career touches. That's much worse than Smith-Schuster. Even John Stallworth fumbled three times in his first 137 career touches. The great Jerry Rice had five giveaways through his first 225 career touches, only one of which came on special teams.

But when he's fumbled is the real key with Smith-Schuster. You just can't have it in those situations. On the flip side, expecting somebody to never fumble through 203 career touches is virtually impossible, a point evidenced above. It's gonna happen.

For Smith-Schuster, it's just the poorest timing imaginable. And that's skewing the perception heavily. He's not a fumbler. But his fumbles have cost the Steelers two crucial games.

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