JuJu Smith-Schuster lived through an all too real nightmare last season, and survived to tell the tale. After enduring an precipitous drop in production in spite of his best efforts, JuJu has hopefully grown both as a man and a professional from the experience.
As the old saying goes, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." JuJu had to question the logic behind that statement at various times last season.
JuJu must have felt trapped in a day stuck on repeat last season, like Bill Murray's character in the comedy classic Groundhog Day.
Imagine with me for a moment if you will, you are JuJu Smith-Schuster heading into last season. You are starting your third season as a professional, hoping to improve on a record setting start to your career. Even though you are coming off a Pro Bowl level season, many pundits openly question your ability to maintain your elite level of production, due to extenuating circumstances beyond your control. You lost your all world running mate, at no fault of your own, and now you have been entrusted with the mantel of WR1. Now you would draw the opposition's number one corner on a consistent basis, maybe even with a safety over the top unless your teammates could step up their game enough to prevent double teams, the same thing you did for your now former superstar teammate.
There was sure to be growing pains, but you were prepared to put in the hard work and commitment necessary to overcome the situation.
The good news was you already had developed an impressive chemistry with your future HOF QB Ben Roethlisberger. You would have to learn how to adjust on the fly to the additional attention in coverage, but the talent was there and the process was doable, it would just take some time. Besides, the Steelers went out and got you some assistance in free agent Donte Moncrief and third rounder Diontae Johnson.
You are feeling pretty good about your chances of continued success, that is until both reality and tragedy struck. The reality that Moncrief turned out to be a far greater liability than he was an asset, and the tragedy of Big Ben being lost for the season.
But you still tell yourself that you got this. You promise yourself that you will go that extra mile, pick up the slack of your fallen comrade by accepting the added responsibility, and drag this collection of inexperienced offensive talent to a successful season.
You had only the best of intentions. The best laid plains of mice and men.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan at first, and your initial numbers through the first quarter of the season were pretty respectable, especially considering the inexperienced QB situation. You managed a number of big plays through your all out effort and intensity. Eventually the opposing defenses adjusted to better exploit the Steelers weaknesses. Then the times, they started changing.
Suddenly every game seemed to be a repeat of the last. Like Bill Murray reliving the same day over and over in Groundhog Day, nothing you did seemed to matter. Even the ill timed fumble against the Ravens, only the second fumble of your entire NFL career, was eerily similar to the one against the Saints the season prior. Somehow you managed to struggle on.
You would explode off the snap against the best corners the opposition had to offer, running the route with the precision and timing necessary to reach the designated spot, often while trying to free yourself from coverage. Finally you reach your destination and...nothing. More often than not the ball wasn't on time, inaccurate, or it never arrived at all. No worries, just run back to the huddle and get ready to do it all again. To say this was a frustrating situation would be a huge understatement.
The mental aspect of this struggle is much tougher than the physical. JuJu had experienced almost instant success in his first two seasons in the NFL. The timing and accuracy of Ben's passes were a far cry from what JuJu experienced last season. His diminished production perfectly reflected the difference.
Now JuJu is faced with a career defining situation. He needs a bounce back season to solidify his reputation and for leverage in negotiating the first substantial contract of his professional career. JuJu wants WR1 money, but first he has to prove he is more than just an exceptional WR2. Not just to the Steelers, but to the rest of the league as well.
JuJu has been working hard to do just that. He has been seen recently working out with Big Ben and a few of his teammates. Reestablishing the chemistry between the two that once seemed so effortless, and adjusting to catching passes from a franchise QB with a new and improved throwing arm. These are indeed exciting times.
I fully expect JuJu to have a bounce back season this year where he establishes himself as a star receiver. I look forward to seeing the infectious smile back on his face, and hopefully we will continue to see it around the Steel City for years to come.