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Mike Tomlin keeping his cards close to the vest with the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster

The Steelers head coach isn’t about to tip his hand in regards to the team’s plan for JuJu Smith-Schuster.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers shocked many in NFL circles Thursday when they announced the return of JuJu Smith-Schuster to practice, starting his 21-day window to return to the active roster.

This move doesn’t mean Smith-Schuster will play vs. the Kansas City Chiefs this Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, in fact history shows he is unlikely to play. Of the players who have been taken off Injured Reserve (IR) this season, not one of them has been activated the first week they return to practice. However, with the playoffs upon the Steelers, it is more of a now-or-never situation which might tip their hand to playing Smith-Schuster if he is healthy.

Following Smith-Schuster’s first practice Thursday, his first practice since October, all reports are things went well. This per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network:

Upon request, Mike Tomlin spoke to media after Thursday’s practice, and he was mum on the team’s plans on utilizing Smith-Schuster. Tomlin was asked if it was a surprise to get Smith-Schuster back on the practice field, which he said it wasn’t.

“It’s not.” Tomlin replied. “He’s worked hard in rehabilitation and has gotten himself to this point and we simply started the 21-day window. We’ll look at him and see how he feels and check his level of conditioning. Things that we normally do when people get into that 21-day window. Kevin Dotson was probably the latest example of that prior to JuJu. Good to have him out here. But it’s just part of the process.”

But the questions didn’t stop there.

How much was Smith-Schuster able to practice?

“I didn’t quantify it to be quite honest with you. It was just a start.”

Okay coach, but is JuJu even an option for the Steelers Sunday?

“I don’t know that. Like I said, we just started his 21-day window and what transpires out here and a lot of other questions are part of the equation.”

Fair enough. Does Smith-Schuster have to wear something on his shoulder? Some type of contraption or harness?

“I didn’t even ask, to be quite honest with you. It’s just about getting him on the grass. It’s good to have his energy out here. It was good day.”

Well then, but if JuJu can play Sunday, what would be bring to the offense?

“You know, I hadn’t even pondered those hypotheticals. We just wanted to have a good Thursday.”

When this news broke Thursday, many speculated if this was indeed news or just some gamesmanship. Was the return of Smith-Schuster wishful thinking, but at its core just something the Chiefs’ defense would have to spend time preparing for as the AFC Playoffs approach?

That, we’ll never know, and there is a chance fans won’t know anything definitive on Smith-Schuster until 4 p.m. ET Saturday when he would have to be activated. Until then, don’t expect any glaring declarations from the Steelers.

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Wild Card game Sunday night.