THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster first caught Rams head coach Sean McVay's attention during Los Angeles' local pro day leading into the 2017 NFL Draft.
"He was impressive, and just how receptive he was to some of the feedback," McVay said, recalling what he observed at that time. "I can even remember just watching his situational awareness where he caught a ball on a four-minute situation in a hitch, and could of scored, but he had the presence – like we’ve seen Todd (Gurley II) do in years past of going down because really they were going to be able to run the clock out."
Smith-Schuster has since evolved into one of the top young receivers in the NFL. Though he's questionable for Sunday's game because of a foot injury, the Rams know that they'll have to be cognizant of more than just that his situational awareness if he ends up playing.
"Really everything," McVay said. "They do a good job moving him around and he’s not limited in anything that he can do."
While McVay is familiar with Smith-Schuster, the 22-year-old receiver presents somewhat of a new challenge for Los Angeles CB Jalen Ramsey.
Ramsey played the Steelers twice when he was with the Jaguars. In the most recent game – Week 11 in 2018 – he matched up with former Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown at least nine times compared to three against Smith-Schuster, according to target data collected by Pro Football Focus. During the two team's Week 5 contest in 2017, Smith-Schuster's rookie year, Ramsey matched up with the former USC producted at least once compared to at least seven times with Brown, per the same matchup data.
Smith-Schuster didn't convert on the lone target against Ramsey two years ago, but he did finish with three receptions for 37 yards when targeted three times against Ramsey last year.
"Different body type, different receiver a little bit," Ramsey said. "He can make plays, but I'm going to play my game. I'm not really worried about it."
Ramsey also said he likes Smith-Schuster's style of play.
"He plays very physical, he plays strong, aggressive through the catch," Ramsey said.
The Los Angeles Rams practice ahead of the team's Week 10 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Those attributes are part of the reason why defenders play him so closely to the line of scrimmage. The other is the numbers.
Smith-Schuster totaled at least 100 receiving yards in eight games in 2018, tied with Brown for second-most by a Steeler in a single season. In two-plus NFL seasons, he's averaged 14.2 yards per reception.
Add in his speed – he ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL Combine – and it's not surprising to see opposing defenders leave just 4.8 yards between him and them at the time of the snap, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. That distance ties with two others for eighth-shortest among wide receivers, minimum of 25 targets.
"You feel like, 'Alright he might not be that burner,' but he runs away from everybody," McVay said. "He’s got great game speed and it’s really just a challenge for our defense as a whole to know where he is at all times and make sure that he’s accounted for because as soon as you just slip up a little bit, he makes you pay and makes a big play that ends up changing the narrative of the game."
Limiting Smith-Schuster and what he does well presents a tall task, but it's one both Ramsey and McVay are up for.
"He’s tough as hell and it’s a great challenge," McVay said. "Looking forward to it.”