The plan for the Pittsburgh Steelers was to lean on their Pro Bowl players from 2018 to help keep the vessel afloat after Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown departed for new pastures. JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner both were supposed to carry their position groups, and ensure there wasn’t a big drop off in production from 2018 to 2019.
While no one expected Ben Roethlisberger to suffer a season ending elbow injury in Week 2, both Smith-Schuster and Conner had seasons to forget. Injuries plagued both players, and left the team reeling, often bringing in practice squad players, to try and patch things together.
Injuries are part of the game of football, no one is disputing this, but how they impact the overall evaluation of these two prolific players is a different story. In his end of the season press conference, Mike Tomlin was asked about both Smith-Schuster and Conner, regarding their injuries, and he made it very clear the evaluation isn’t based solely on their availability, but is a large part of it.
Here are his comments regarding Smith-Schuster’s 2019 season:
“I haven’t met with him yet, 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. 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.” Tomlin said. “In terms of production, 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.”
Tomlin clearly looking at the positives when it comes to his prized receiver and a tumultuous season for No. 19. He didn’t really sing the same song when he was asked about how you can evaluate Conner’s game.
“That is a big component of it. He didn’t spend a lot of time on the field healthy. But that is as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. We will assess it and we will assess it with him as it pertains to him in an effort to minimize it to what degree we can moving forward. But injuries are a part of the game, it happens.”
The biggest red flag for Conner is how it hasn’t been just one season where he has dealt with an injury. His rookie season was cut short due to a knee injury, his 2018 season saw him miss time for a separate knee injury and 2019 was marred with both shoulder and quad injuries.
A trend has developed, and with Conner embarking on his final season of his rookie contract, he has to realize the best way for him to receive a big second contract is by staying healthy. Conner has proven to be a valuable asset for the offense, but your best ability is your availability, and that is something Conner has struggled with since being drafted.
Both Smith-Schuster and Conner had rocky seasons, putting it mildly, but how much can injuries impact the evaluation process? Just like Tomlin’s responses in his press conference, you look at both players differently. Smith-Schuster dealt with a concussion, toe and knee injuries, but he doesn’t have the laundry list, and history of injuries, like Conner. If the Steelers’ offense is going to rebound in 2020, they will need both of these players not just available, but better for the team to become more balanced on the offensive and defensive sides of the football.