It’s rarely ever something a team would hope for when a Pro Bowl player misses multiple games. As much as I wanted to say “never,” I’m sure someone could come up with an example where it could benefit a team - but I sure can’t.
Not having some of your best talent on the field is something each team has to attempt to overcome at some point or another. For the last three games, the Pittsburgh Steelers have been without 2018 Pro Bowlers James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster. While it is still uncertain when these players will return, the Steelers have managed to go 3-0 in their absence.
When it comes to Smith-Schuster, it is reported that he is hoping to return this Sunday to Heinz Field against the Buffalo Bills.
Steelers’ WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has missed the past three games with a knee injury, is eyeing a return on Sunday night against the Buffalo Bills, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) December 9, 2019
For each game Smith-Schuster has been out, it seemed as if his absence could greatly affect the Steelers passing game. The sooner he can return, the better off the Steelers would be. But if his return is imminent, it is very easy to look at the positives from the time he has missed.
The positives are plentiful. Over the last three games, second-year player James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson have each stepped up their play at various points. Washington had continued to increase his personal bests when it comes to receiving yards up until week 14 against the Cardinals. In the Cardinals game, Johnson shook off some struggles from the previous weeks and stepped up not only with a punt return for a touchdown, but also with a receiving touchdown as part of his six receptions for 60 yards.
As these young receivers continue to emerge with the more consistent play of quarterback Devlin Hodges, it will be interesting to see how introducing Smith-Schuster back into the mix will benefit the receiving corps.
Over the last three games, Johnson and Washington have combined for 345 yards on 21 receptions. Although Johnson had a bit of a rough stretch the first two games, seeing him emerge against the Arizona Cardinals gives even more confidence to the young group of receivers. Adding Smith-Schuster back into the mix should give the Steelers even more options in the passing game.
During the last three games, the Steelers have rotated which player has lined up in the slot in Smith-Schuster‘s absence. Although the majority of snaps early on appeared to have gone to Johnson and Tevin Jones, Washington also took his fair share of snaps in the slot. Just imagine a wide receiver group in 11 personnel with JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington where any of the players could line up in any of the positions.
Once Smith Schuster returns, one question which will need to be answered is which receiver does not get a helmet on game day. It would be difficult to dress all six players at the position, so more than likely someone will be left out. While many Steelers fans would instantly answer Johnny Holton, he is used merely as the last option of a receiver as his value is purely on special teams and is difficult to replace there. So if Holton gets a helmet for that reason, it would most likely be Deon Cain or Tevin Jones who will have to sit out. Unfortunately, I would assume it would be Jones, although he has shown some really nice things in his time on the field. But having more serviceable receivers than positions available on game day is a much better problem to have than the alternative.
Whether or not Smith-Schuster gets back on the field for Week 15 remains to be seen. Until he does, the other young wide receivers need to step up as they have over the last three weeks. And when JuJu returns, hopefully the Steelers receivers can outperform what opponents can easily cover.