Based on all the statements coming out of the Steelers facilities this week from the players and coaches when asked specifically what the team needed to do to get back on track and snap out of their present two game losing streak, one can only assume that the Steelers brass has been communicating subliminally to their employees by pumping Olivia Newton-John's 80's hit song "Let's get Physical" over the sound system throughout the facilities.
Almost to a man, every press conference and interview turned into a discussion about the need to be more physical as a team. Honestly it was more than a little refreshing to see all participants on the same page like that. This desire to be more physical requires a return to an old school mindset, almost primitive in natural.
The need for increased physicality most assuredly applies to the Steelers offense far more than the defense. While the Steelers defense wasn't their normal dominant selves in the second half against the Buffalo Bills, the truth of the matter lies in the fact the unit finally wore down from being shorthanded due to accumulating injuries and being on the field far too long as a result of the Steelers offense not holding up their end of the bargain. The Steelers defense has faced increased pressure recently as the offense has struggled mightily to put points on the scoreboard.
Immediately everyone assumes that the offensive line is the main culprit, and while improvement is definitely needed in that regard, Ben Roethlisberger and the coaches explained that improved intensity was needed from all participants. I wholeheartedly agree, especially as it pertains to the Steelers receiving core with contested catches. JuJu Smith-Schuster just so happens to be the old man among the wideouts based on experience, and you would be hard pressed to find a better example of physicality at the position.
Smith-Schuster has many positive traits that have made him a fan favorite since entering the NFL, but his intensity and toughness may just top the list. Think back to a particular moment from JuJu's rookie season if you will. It just so happens to be a game against the Steelers upcoming opponent on Monday Night Football, the Cincinnati Bengals. Every Steelers fan already knows the moment I am referring to, a moment that will forever live in Steelers history.
Notorious cheap shot artist, the villainous Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict terrorized the NFL for years with his always borderline to blatantly dirty play. He had been especially troublesome for the Steelers Killer B's, knocking each of the Steelers three superstars out of games at one point or another in seasons prior. Although he had been fined and/or suspended on multiple occasions throughout his career, he seemed impossibly out of control and continued to run amok across the NFL landscape. That is until JuJu Smith-Schuster arrived on the scene.
JuJu seems like a big fun loving kid at first glance, but beneath that charming exterior lays the heart of a lion. More than a little similar to Steelers legendary tough guy Hines Ward, the ultimate enforcer at receiver in NFL history. His blindside blocks were so devastating that many defensive tough guys feared him and were forced to keep their heads on a swivel or risk getting knocked out. Ward's ferocious physicality forced the NFL to implement a new rule to protect all the defenders who definitely didn't enjoy having their own tendencies turned against them.
Just when it appeared that nothing short of suspension could protect NFL skill position players from the menace of Burfict, JuJu went full Scooby Doo and unmasked the monster. He channeled his inner Hines Ward and took the NFL's baddest bully down a few notches and gained huge respect around the league in the process.
JuJu had been hearing all the horror stories about Burfict since he entered the league, many of the cautionary variety. He refused to be fearful or intimidated however, and he was more than ready for an altercation if the situation was to arise. When the inevitable happened, he laid out the NFL's biggest terrorist. Burfict had to be carted off the field, and was never viewed in the same way ever again as an intimidating presence. The devastating impact knocked out Burfict, resulting in a league imposed fine and suspension for the Steelers young standout. Worth every penny if you ask me.
Physicality matters at every position in the NFL, and wide receiver is no different. The Steelers currently lead the NFL in pass interference penalties drawn on passes over 20 yards down the field with 8 so far on the season, thanks mainly to the big play talents and potential of rookie standout Chase Claypool, who leads the team with 5 of those calls. Lately I've been noticing a troubling trend from this group of pass catchers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Chase Claypool all have the strength and physicality needed to complete contested catches, but recently they seem to have been anticipating the penalty instead of maintaining their focus and completing the catch. As we have seen in the past few games, NFL officials have a tendency to miss more than a few rather obvious instances of defensive holding and illegal contact down the field when they are happening constantly as defenders try to counter the Steelers talent at receiver.
The Steelers receivers need a renewed focus on their physicality and desire to fight through the contact to complete the contested opportunities because there is no guarantees that a flag will be thrown. Like any fighter will tell you, never leave the outcome in the hands of the judges.