It was supposed to be his year to step up into the number one receiver role for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, several different circumstances did not play out in favor of wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2019. Be it injury or an ever-changing quarterback situation, Smith-Schuster saw his numbers cut in half from his 2018 totals rather than being able to build upon them.
In a season where Smith-Schuster was elected to the Pro Bowl as well as being named team MVP, JuJu had 1,426 yards on 111 receptions with seven touchdowns in 2018. With the departure of Antonio Brown, it was Smith-Schuster’s chance to slide into the Steelers number one receiver role and show he could be the guy to lead the way.
Dealing with nagging injuries all season before missing a four-game stretch in November and December, Smith-Schuster came up extremely short of his expectations for 2019. With only 552 yards on 42 receptions with three touchdowns, Smith-Schuster failed to lead the Steelers in any of these three categories. JuJu was third on the team in receiving yards behind Diontae Johnson (680) and James Washington (735). As for receptions, Smith-Schuster was once again behind Johnson (59) and Washington (44) as well as running back Jaylen Samuels (47). As for receiving touchdowns, JuJu was tied for second behind Diontae Johnson (5) as his three touchdowns matched James Washington, James Conner, and Vance McDonald.
In his end-of-the-year press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin was asked about how he would evaluate JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.
“I haven’t met with him yet,” Tomlin explained, “so we will develop a mentality in that regard. Injuries are a part of the game. He knows that, I understand that. We don’t waste any time worrying about that.”
Although Smith-Schuster did not miss a game until the end of November, he sustained a toe injury during Week 1 which hindered his availability early in the season. As is the case with many NFL injuries, sometimes they can linger as players attempt to play through the pain in order to stay on the field. So while Smith-Schuster did not miss a game until after sustaining both a concussion and a knee injury against the Cleveland Browns in Week 11, injuries did play a factor throughout his entire 2019 season.
While his on-field production took a hit this season, Coach Tomlin did expound on Smith-Schuster‘s contributions in other ways.
“I like the way he grew as a leader. I like some of the leadership presence that he provided even when he wasn’t participating for young guys in his position group like James Washington and Diontae Johnson. I thought he took a step in those ways.”
But as we all know, the ultimate evaluation for many players in the NFL comes down to numbers. For teams, success is measured in wins and losses. As for individual performances, wide receivers are expected to produce catches, yards, and touchdowns. And in those aspects, Smith-Schuster’s 2019 season was a disappointment.
“In terms of production,” Tomlin continued, “in terms of the receiver position, a lot of those things are defined by variables that, at times, are out of your control. We are not going to worry too much about that. It was what it was. I’m sure it was a disappointment for him. It was a disappointment for us, collectively talking about 2019. We will absorb it, be accountable for it and move forward for 2020.”
With the Steelers 2019 season concluded, all Smith-Schuster can do now is look to improve for 2020. With his young receiving corps getting valuable experience this past season along with the anticipated return of Ben Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster will need to shake off his 2019 woes if he hopes to lead the Steelers back to the playoffs in 2020.