This offseason when the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to trade Antonio Brown to the Oakland Raiders for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, they were putting all their chips on No. 19. Yes, JuJu Smith-Schuster.
In the days and months that followed this move, many speculated whether Smith-Schuster would be capable of being a pure No. 1 receiver in the NFL. Would he be able to beat the coverages deployed without Brown to draw attention away from him? In other words, were his stellar numbers in his first two seasons more of a product of his situation, than him doing enough to win those weekly matchups without an All-Pro opposite him?
The Steelers have played 8 games so far in the 2019 regular season, and the verdict is still out on Smith-Schuster being “the guy”, but it isn’t necessarily all on him. During those offseason discussions of what Smith-Schuster might be as a No. 1, no one expected Mason Rudolph, and not Ben Roethlisberger, to be throwing passes the Steelers’ receivers as early as Week 3. On top of that, the Steelers tried, but failed, in bringing in a legitimate threat opposite him with the addition of Donte Moncrief via free agency this offseason. He is now a member of the Carolina Panthers.
Smith-Schuster’s stats leave a lot to be desired. Just look at Smith-Schuster’s numbers, and where he ranks among his NFL colleagues:
Receptions: 33 (51st)
Yards: 459 yards (38th)
TDs: 3 (T-32nd)
Targets: 51 (51st)
Catch %: 64.7% (124th)
Yards/Reception: 13.9 (39th)
Not really top tier receiving numbers so far this season, but head coach Mike Tomlin spoke at his weekly press conference about how statistics don’t show the whole story when talking about Smith-Schuster’s slow start.
“You know, how he’s done relative and statistics are probably two different things because it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’ve got no issues with how he’s handled himself relative to some of those matchups, but statistics might not tell the story because a lot of things going on around him.” Tomlin said. “I like his work. I like his professionalism. I like how he wins his one on ones. Hopefully it’s a catalyst for us, in terms of getting more traction and consistently moving the ball offensively.”
When talking about moving the ball through the air, Tomlin was asked about whether how the Steelers deploy their receivers is more of a week-to-week situation, or if it just has its own peaks and valleys.
“Really it just depends on, in the short term, who’s available to us. We’ve dealt with some unique circumstances, in terms of player availability, and it dictates that personality is adjusted accordingly. When we gain some traction, in terms of player availability, maybe we can start talking about some of the things that you mentioned. In the meanwhile, we better do what it is that we can do with what we have available to us in an effort to win the game.”
For whatever reason, the quarterback, the defense or the teammates, the Steelers need JuJu Smith-Schuster to find his footing. He can’t do it alone, but if this team wants to be considered a contender at 4-4, and not just a middle-of-the-road pretender, they will need their superstars to shine bright when it matters most.
With the Los Angeles Rams coming to Heinz Field to cap off a three game home stand, the team will have to do their best to match the high powered Rams offense point for point. Having Smith-Schuster be a focal point of that equation will be vital to their success.
Stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Rams in Week 10.