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Steelers News: JuJu Smith-Schuster is only getting better, by the day

When you’re a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver corps, you’d better be on your A-game. JuJu Smith-Schuster seems to be following the script quite nicely.

Minnesota Vikings v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Just imagine you’re a wide receiver and you’re drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Your first day on the job, you walk into the locker room and see Antonio Brown, the best of the best, sitting there along with Martavis Bryant, the man they call the Alien, Darrius Heyward-Bey, the veteran of the group, Eli Rogers, an up-and-coming young player and a slew of other veterans now looking at the rookie of the group.

Talk about pressure.

But for Steelers’ second-round draft pick, JuJu Smith-Schuster, the stage has never been too big. Not even 21-years-old yet, Smith-Schuster is learning more and more each day, to the point where quarterback Ben Roethlisberger spoke nothing but positives about the former USC receiver during his weekly talk show on 93.7 The Fan.

Smith-Schuster caught his first pass on Sunday, and it was also his first touchdown. Pretty special, right?

For more on Smith-Schuster and other news surrounding the Black-and-gold outside the walls of BTSC, check below:

So you think JuJu Smith-Schuster is fitting in quite comfortably with the Steelers despite being the youngest player in the NFL?

You have no idea.

Smith-Schuster has earned enough trust from his coaches and quarterback to split time with Eli Rogers as the team’s third wide receiver. He had 38 snaps in the game Sunday against Minnesota, a boost from 25 a week earlier against Cleveland. He scored a touchdown against the Vikings on his first NFL catch. He threw a ferocious block on safety Harrison Smith that surely made Hines Ward smile. And get this: He organized the team’s “Casino Night” end zone celebrations after his touchdown and Martavis Bryant’s earlier touchdown.

“That was definitely JuJu,” Ramon Foster said when asked about the brains behind the imaginary dice rolls.

Ben Roethlisberger chuckled and described the celebrations as “shenanigans.” Google Smith-Schuster’s touchdown and what follows will make you laugh. He called over Le’Veon Bell, Bryant and Foster, then dropped to one knee and pretended to roll dice. David DeCastro started into the circle but quickly turned away when he realized what was happening. “Coach [Mike] Tomlin pointed that out the other day,” Roethlisberger said. “It was one of the funniest things you’ll ever see. Dave was like, ‘I’m not getting involved in that.’ ”

Roethlisberger was much more thrilled with Smith-Schuster’s work in scoring his touchdown. It started with Smith-Schuster lined up on the wing to Roethlisberger’s left. He came across the field at the snap and looked as if he were going to block defensive end Danielle Hunter only to turn up field, take Roethlisberger’s shovel pass and score the 4-yard touchdown. The Steelers were going to run that same play for their 2-point conversion try after Bryant’s touchdown, but didn’t get a chance because of a delay-of-game penalty due, at least in part, to Bryant’s dice roll.

“We’ve been working on that play since camp,” Smith-Schuster said. “My receivers coach [Richard Mann] told me to be acting as I came across. He said, ‘You’re from California, right? You’re from Hollywood, right? Go out there and be acting and get the ball and score a touchdown.’ ”

That’s exactly what Smith-Schuster did.

Thirty points per game was the stated goal before the season. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell were going to light up opposing defenses. The return of Martavis Bryant was going to add another dimension, as was the arrival of rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Expectations were sky-high for the Steelers’ offense, but so far it’s been rather ordinary. The Steelers are the definition of a middle-of-the-pack NFL offense. They are 15th in the league in total offense, averaging 312 yards per game. That’s 60 yards fewer than last season and almost 100 fewer than their 2014 pace when they averaged 411 yards per game and finished second in the league in total offense.

It’s only a 2-game sample, but if this keeps up, they’ll average their fewest yards per game since the 2008 season.

“No one is going to be perfect,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We know that. We’d like to be as good as we can be. We know there will be mistakes, but if we can continue to make improvements, that’s important. You don’t want to be playing your best football right now. You want to find ways to win football games and keep getting better so your best football, hopefully, is being played in December and January.”

Coach Mike Tomlin has said Bell’s absence from training camp has contributed to his slow start. He has 119 rushing yards, which ranks 13th in the league.

Bell’s receiving statistics have declined even more than his rushing stats. He has only 19 receiving yards after two games but he’s averaged 41 receiving yards per game during his career.

“We’re taking shots down the field,” said Roethlisberger, who is 11th in the league in passing with 253 yards per game. “We’re not putting him out at a receiver position yet. We haven’t gotten him involved in check-down passing game yet. We’ll continue to evolve and grow. I know there is no cause for concern. It’s just the way games are playing out right now.”

Brown is the only Steeler leading the league in an offensive category. He is averaging 122 yards per game although the Vikings held him to 62 yards on five receptions.

Roethlisberger isn’t fazed by any of the perceived offensive struggles. He said the only statistic that matters is wins and losses.

Mike Tomlin emphasized as much this week, noting on the plus side that his offense has only one turnover, but that his defense has managed only two — an interception by rookie linebacker T.J. Watt in the opener and Artie Burns’ recovery of William Gay’s forced fumble with less than a minute to go against Minnesota.

The Steelers’ defensive coaches haven’t had to count past one since the real season started.

“We are doing a lot of good things,’’ Tomlin said of his defense that ranks No. 3 in least yards allowed in the NFL. “We’re running to the ball. We’re largely keeping it in front of us.”

But ...

“I’d like to see us get the ball more. I think we only produced one turnover over two football games and maybe we’re plus-1 in the turnover ratio through a couple ball games.”

Compare that to the Baltimore Ravens, who have produced 10 turnovers through their two victories, eight of them interceptions.

Has the Steelers’ defense lost its ball-hawk element, especially in the secondary? While Burns had three interceptions as a rookie in 2016, that represented half of the secondary’s combined total in a defensive unit that picked off 13 overall.

In fact, as interceptions go, so go the Steelers to the Super Bowl. Only twice have they had 20 or more interceptions in one season, and both times they reached the Super Bowl — 21 in 2010 and 20 while going all the way in 2008.

“There are some teams out there playing significant ball on the defensive side that are getting turnovers in bunches,” Tomlin said, probably with the Ravens in mind. “And if we want to be one of the elite groups, we have to get in that game and produce those type of days. And particularly it can be much needed as you go into a hostile environment like Solider Field.”

When Chris Hubbard started the game Sunday as a blocking tight end, it began an unexpectedly busy afternoon for the 26-year-old offensive lineman.

By the time the Steelers' 26-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings was complete, Hubbard's time at tight end paled in comparison to the snaps he took at two other spots on offense.

When Alejandro Villanueva exited because of a stomach illness, Hubbard moved into the starting lineup for 21 snaps at left tackle. When Marcus Gilbert left in the fourth quarter because of a hamstring injury, Hubbard moved over to right tackle for the final 15 snaps.

Oh, and Hubbard also played 10 snaps while taking his regular turn on the special teams coverage units.

To recap, that's four positions — if you count special teams — played by Hubbard in one game, and that's not counting the practice reps he has taken at center and both guard positions since the start of training camp.

That makes Hubbard the football equivalent of a super-utility player for the Steelers, who marvel at and appreciate his versatility.

“He's the most complete offensive lineman in the NFL,” Villanueva said.

“Hubbs,” center Maurkice Pouncey said, “is amazing.”

Hubbard, though, could be singularly focused this Sunday against the Chicago Bears if Gilbert's hamstring remains an issue. Gilbert didn’t practice Wednesday, the first of three practices this week for the Steelers in preparation for the game.

“I'm going to get myself prepared,” said Hubbard, a soft-spoken fourth-year player from Alabama-Birmingham.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Hubbard started three games on the line in the first half of last season while Gilbert sat out with an ankle injury. He also started as an extra tight end against Cleveland in November and took snaps there sporadically throughout the second half when the emphasis on offense turned to running back Le'Veon Bell.

“The most impressive thing about him is he can carry a lot of skill through each position,” Villanueva said. “He's a very knowledgeable player. He sees every block, he's very fundamental, and that's what makes him a plug-and-play sort of player.”

The Steelers' defense put up another solid performance in their 26-9 victory over the Vikings, but that hasn't stopped them from knowing they still need to improve.

Mike Mitchell said as much to Mark Kaboly after the game when he expressed his displeasure about the lone touchdown the defense surrendered on a drive with multiple big plays.

Regardless of the fact that the Steelers have only faced a rookie quarterback making his debut in DeShone Kizer, and a backup quarterback in Case Keenum, they still are allowing only 13.5 points per game and they’ve brought considerable pressure in both appearances with nine total sacks.

The Steelers' defensive youth movement has created a new dynamic which has allowed Keith Butler to set an aggressive tone with exotic blitzes, while also playing disciplined football.

We’ll be taking a dive later into areas where the defense still needs to polish its game, but we’ll also be featuring the places where it excels.