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Steelers News: JuJu Smith-Schuster hits impressive milestone, and his future has never been brighter

Time to check on the latest news surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers had their nifty winning streak snapped at the hands of the Denver Broncos in week 12, and after their 24-17 loss the team now has to turn the page quickly before they host the red-hot Los Angeles Chargers at Heinz Field in Week 13.

Today in the Black-and-gold links article, we take a look at how second year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster hit an impressive milestone in the team’s Week 12 loss to the Broncos, and the future has never looked as bright for No. 19 as it does right now.

Let’s get to the news:

‘Never satisfied’ JuJu Smith-Schuster reaches 1,000 yards in 2nd NFL season

By: Joe Rutter, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

JuJu Smith-Schuster wasn’t the first Steelers wide receiver this century to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in his second NFL season when he reached the milestone Sunday in a 24-17 loss to the Denver Broncos.

He wasn’t the second or third, either.

Smith-Schuster became the fourth second-year player for the Steelers since 2000 to reach quadruple digits, but nobody else did it on a day when they matched the record for longest pass play in franchise history.

Smith-Schuster’s 97-yard touchdown catch early in the third quarter put him on the doorstep of 1,000 yards and provided the Steelers with a 17-10 lead, their only one of the game.

Smith-Schuster entered the game with 844 receiving yards and he finished it with 1,055 after catching 13 passes for 189 yards. The 13 catches tied a career high and the yardage total was the second-highest of his young career.

“JuJu is crazy,” guard David DeCastro said. “That’s awesome, he’s an awesome weapon, that’s for sure.”

Smith-Schuster embraced the opportunity to put up big numbers in his second season.

“One of my top goals,” he said. “Obviously, every receiver has yards, catches, pretty much touchdowns, and I reached that goal. But I’m never satisfied.”

Smith-Schuster, who turned 22 on Thanksgiving, is the youngest receiver in Steelers history to have a 1,000-yard season. In the past two decades, Plaxico Burress, Mike Wallace and teammate Antonio Brown also reached the milestone in their second year in the league. (For the record, Hines Ward didn’t get his first 1,000-yard season until his fourth year).

“He had a great game, and I’m really happy for him,” Brown said.

Thanks to a strong second half to his rookie season, Smith-Schuster had 68 catches for 917 yards in 2017. He established a career-high in receptions last weekend against Jacksonville and increased his team lead to 77 catches after his big day against the Broncos. If Smith-Schuster averages five catches over the final five games of the regular season, he’ll reach triple digits.

“He’s reliable, dependable and trustworthy,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I know he is going to be in the right spot.”

Entering the third quarter, Smith-Schuster had eight catches but for just 39 yards. His yards-per-catch average soared when he took a deep pass from Roethlisberger and didn’t stop until he reached the end zone for a 97-yard score with 10:32 left in the third quarter. That matched the distance Smith-Schuster covered as a rookie on a touchdown catch against the Detroit Lions.

“It was single high, and you just kind of pick a side,” Roethlisberger said. “They got pressure early pretty quick. I saw JuJu went inside, and I just let it go. You never really think it’s going to be a touchdown. You just think it’s going to be a completion for a big chunk.”

Brown threw a block downfield that helped spring Smith-Schuster for extra yardage. Inside the Broncos 25, he encountered safety Darian Stewart. Smith-Schuster used a stiff-arm to brush aside Stewart. From there, it was clear sailing into the end zone.

“I saw AB blocking, I took the cut and just turned it up and over,” Smith-Schuster said.

Despite fumble, Steelers need more James Conner down stretch

By: Jeremy Fowler, ESPN

James Conner has been a reluctant star of sorts, wading through the Le’Veon Bell mess while letting his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates and his play talk for him. Players praised him publicly and Conner laid low.

But from his locker Sunday, while visibly frustrated after a 24-17 loss to Denver that featured his late-third-quarter fumble to set up a Broncos touchdown, Conner had a real moment amid the clipped answers.

”Obviously I’m not in a good mood right now,” said Conner, who went 23 yards on a screen pass before the open-field fumble on a Bradley Roby tackle. “Don’t mean to be short with you guys. Just wanted to win the game. I’m a competitor.”

Conner is an ascending player whose star just got chipped on the way up. In Week 11, he dropped two passes in crucial moments against Jacksonville. He has 143 total rushing yards in the three weeks. After 95 total yards Sunday, Conner is still on pace for 1,000-plus rushing yards and is among the league leaders in touchdowns with 10.

But Conner has five more games to rediscover the October surge that earned him AFC offensive player of the month honors. Part of that is usage. Conner has averaged 11.7 rushing attempts per game from Weeks 10-12, compared to 22 per game from Weeks 6-9.

To be sure, matchups and flow of the game affect those swings. And Ben Roethlisberger said the game plan dictated a pass-happy attack, with 56 passes resulting in 464 yards in the air and eight different receivers catching a pass.

”A lot of guys made plays for us,” Roethlisberger said. “Why get away from something you are successful in just to force something else?”

Tim Benz: Old road habits return in Steelers’ familiar-feeling loss to Broncos

By: Tim Benz, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Here’s a tweet I sent out during the second quarter as the Steelers were struggling to come back from a 3-0 deficit in Denver.

It was met with the predictable reaction of, “What!? Didn’t you see last week’s game in Jacksonville?”

I did.

Similarly, I wonder if many of those who tweeted such responses saw any of the all-too-common losses — or ties — by the Steelers on the road to inferior competition in the Mike Tomlin era.

The Chicago loss last year. This year’s tie in Cleveland. The slew of such games in 2009, 2012, and 2013 that went a long way toward keeping the Steelers out of the playoffs in those seasons. And, of course, the loss to Tim Tebow and company on the same field in the 2011 postseason.

Before we go any further, the point of this isn’t to rewrite the narrative about favored Tomlin teams faltering on the road. Yet, the Steelers tendency to play down to competition does bite them almost every year when it comes to making the playoffs, or at least having an easier road through them.

To be fair, the Steelers have been solid on the road lately. The stumble in Denver is their only road loss this season. They dropped just one road game last season. And they closed out 2016 by winning their last four regular-season road games and a playoff matchup in Kansas City.

Rather, the point of this entry is twofold.

First, if you thought the Jacksonville game was some type of defining moment that made the Steelers foolproof against lesser teams on the road, you were kidding yourself.

Second, the Steelers familiar formula for defeat in this Denver game must be avoided in the future.

Like in Oakland two weeks from now.

So many of those unfortunate Steelers losses away from Heinz Field follow the same script I alluded to in the above tweet.

Overly fancy play calling. Painful turnovers. Allowing lesser teams to hang around early in games so belief builds in the fourth quarter. Special teams miscues. Red-zone screw-ups. Stat-sheet dominance that isn’t reflected on the scoreboard.

Those items have frequently been at the root of the Steelers undoing in games such as this 24-17 loss to the 5-6 Broncos. They were all on display Sunday in Denver.