The Season Of Comebacks

CBS Pittsburgh

By: Jordan DeFigio
SteelerNation.com

It should come as no surprise that Pittsburgh Steelers wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster was named by NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt as the number one candidate for players due to bounce-back this season. Well, at least not to fans of the team.

Smith-Schuster made a noticeable impact on the field in his rookie season in 2017 with 58 receptions for 917 yards and 7 touchdowns (that 97-yarder really stood out). But the real splash came in this sophomore season where he caught the ball a whopping 111 times on 166 targets, racking up 1,426 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns (and yet another 97-yard long).

As the off-field saga with Antonio Brown began to trickle out of the locker room and onto the field, it looked all but certain Smith-Schuster would be the new number one wideout as Brown made a dramatic exit from the Steelers organization following the 2018 season. Despite the fumble late in the game against the New Orleans Saints that more than likely cost the Steelers the game (and a subsequent playoff berth), Smith-Schuster’s breakout season set him up to be the future of the wide-receiver position in Pittsburgh.

That just wasn’t in the cards, though.

Smith-Schuster did in fact become the team’s number one receiver, but he certainly didn’t put up the numbers of a number one guy.

In 2019, he had 42 receptions on 70 targets (which, honestly, seems like a surprisingly low number of drops given how many of those were uncatchable throws and how many complaints were leveled against his ability to maintain possession of the ball). He only managed 552 receiving yards and reached the end zone only three times. And somehow, again, found himself with another costly fumble in overtime vs. the Baltimore Ravens at home in week 5.

This, of course, is only taking into account his on-field production (or lack thereof). There are plenty of people who also consider Smith-Schuster’s social media presence a deterrent for what they perceive as his inability to make crucial catches at critical points. However you feel about the way he conducts himself online is your prerogative. But I, personally, stick to football metrics to judge football play.

And he just wasn’t good enough last season. There is no way around it. He didn’t look like the wideout we had watched just a season before. He did not look like a number one receiver.

Unless.

You take into account some other, less tangible football metrics.

In 2018, Smith-Schuster was lining up alongside guys by the names of Antonio Brown, a tight-end tandem of (a healthy) Vance McDonald and Jesse James, and was catching passes from a quarterback who led the league in passing yards at 5,129.

In 2019, Smith-Schuster was part of a wide-receiver unit primarily comprised of James Washington, who struggled in his rookie season, Ryan Switzer, an emerging stud in Diontae Johnson, Johnny Holton, and, for the briefest of times, Donte Moncrief (remember him?).

But the biggest setback of all occurred in week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks, when that 5,000-yard-slinging Ben Roethlisberger left the game and the season with an elbow injury. That left the Steelers’ season, and in-part Smith-Schuster’s as well, in the hands of the merry-go-round of backups filling in at the quarterback position. Mason Rudolph, who was starting his first games in his second season, and Devlin “Duck” Hodges, who was an undrafted rookie, are not Ben Roethlisberger. And offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner did no favors for anyone by trying to force both Rudolph and Hodges to BE Ben Roethlisberger. No inexperienced quarterback should be throwing the ball 38 times in one game.

Smith-Schuster struggled. Some argue his success came as a result of being teammates with Antonio Brown, and of course that’s why we saw a drop-off in his numbers and performance. No more Brown. But just like you can’t attribute his lack of production entirely to Rudolph, Hodges, and the smattering of other receivers, you can’t attribute his success entirely to Antonio Brown. It just doesn’t work like that.

This season will be telling for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it will provide the answers to a lot of questions everyone has been asking;

“Does Ben Roethlisberger still have what it takes at his age to compete?”

“Do the Steelers have a chance to win another Lombardi before Roethlisberger retires?”

“Is our defense going to remain one of the top-five in the league?”

“Is JuJu Smith-Schuster actually a good receiver?”

I think, truthfully, we already know the answer to that question. I think he is. But this team will prove it one way or another. With the additions of Chase Claypool providing height and size and speed at the receiver position, Eric Ebron at the tight-end position, and hopefully an upgraded running game, Smith-Schuster will have the opportunity to once again catch passes from a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Say what you will about the guy, you probably already do. But this is the season of comebacks. Ben Roethlisberger is headlining the tour. And he isn’t going without JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Do you think JuJu Smith-Schuster will have under or over 1,000 receiving yards this season? How many TD’s does he end the year with? Comment with your thoughts below!
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