The injury issues surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers are well documented. Whether it is the rash of groin injuries throughout the lineup, or season ending injuries, the Steelers have been dealing with the health of their roster since Week 1.
They aren’t alone in this regard, but the most recent loss has been to a beloved member of the wide receiving corps. Of course, this is in reference to JuJu Smith-Schuster’s shoulder injury which required surgery, which was successful, and will end his 2021 season.
Wednesday Ben Roethlisberger met with media and was asked about the loss of Smith-Schuster. Not just in terms of on-field production, but in general for the team.
“I’m hurt because I miss that guy, what he brings to this team, his energy, his excitement, the leadership. It sucks. It really does.” Roethlisberger said. “And I’m not even the one hurt. I spoke to him on Sunday night, and I felt his pain through the phone. Spoke to his mom as well. Sometimes things aren’t fair, and we don’t know why they happen. A guy that has given so much and a guy that means so much to this team to me, specifically...It’s just not fair.”
Smith-Schuster’s injury could equate to him playing his last game in a black and gold jersey considering he will be a free agent, again, this upcoming offseason. One thing Roethlisberger knows is how replacing Smith-Schuster won’t be easy. For starters, replacing Smith-Schuster’s toughness as a receiver isn’t a simple task.
“JuJu’s one of those guys that isn’t afraid of contact.” Roethlisberger added. “But you’ve got to be built for it too, and he is. Always was a guy that was physical and kind of set the tempo, so hopefully other guys will just carry that on.”
Replacing Smith-Schuster won’t be easy, but it is necessary. So, who is likely to step up? Who is likely to fill that role? Who will take Smith-Schuster’s touches on a weekly basis?
Some might think it is easy, but Roethlisberger understands it will take more than one receiver to fill that void.
“Well, it’s a big opportunity for Ray-Ray [McCloud], for James, Cody [White]’s gonna get his shot, I’m sure. It seems like every week one of the guys has been down for something.” Roethlisberger said. “Moving forward now without JuJu, we’re gonna need everyone to be healthy as much as they can be every week. I think James is excited for the opportunity, I think Ray-Ray is as well. We’re gonna have to utilize a lot of people at their positions too.”
What about Chase Claypool? Could he move into the slot and succeed? After all, Claypool’s touchdown vs. the Denver Broncos in Week 5 came when he lined up in the slot. According to Roethlisberger, playing the slot full-time is not for everyone.
“Playing the slot position in the NFL is different than playing outside. It’s just a different animal. I think we have a lot of guys that can do it but it’s a feel thing. You don’t want to take a big body outside that’s got special skills. I think you’ll see probably some more utilization of the tight ends and running backs in there and different guys.”
As expected, it will take more than one player to fill JuJu Smith-Schuster’s role on the offense, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the offense will struggle. Despite the injury being tough, Smith-Schuster’s numbers throughout the first 5 games were rather pedestrian.
TD (Passing): 0
TD (Rushing): 1
If anything, the loss of Smith-Schuster could create a tremendous opportunity for other play-making pass catchers. As Roethlisberger cited himself, it could equate to more targets for rookie Pat Freiermuth, Eric Ebron and even Najee Harris, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Sure, the injury is awful, but the Steelers will have to find a way to make ends meet without Smith-Schuster for the duration of the regular season. Whether they can do this will be found out on Sunday Night Football in Week 6 vs. the Seattle Seahawks.
So, stay tuned, and get your popcorn ready!