Pittsburgh Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was penalized twice while failing to even garner a look in the passing game during his NFL debut in the team’s season opener. He has since added another two penalties, balanced out by two touchdowns.
The 20-year-old became the youngest player in decades to catch a touchdown pass in week two. He has since seized upon the starting slot receiver job and been on a consistent upward trajectory in terms of snaps and overall contributions.
He has received more snaps over the course of the past three weeks—and in each of those three weeks—than has Martavis Bryant. While the youngster is not outproducing the comparative veteran—Bryant has three more catches for 44 more yards, though one fewer touchdown—he has done so on fewer targets while averaging about the same yards per reception, so has been more efficient and reliable.
Smith-Schuster has outproduced Bryant in each of the past three weeks. They both had two receptions apiece three weeks ago in Chicago, but Smith-Schuster had 39 yards to Bryant’s 30. Against the Ravens, Bryant went for 3-48-0 while Smith-Schuster went 3-47-1, the one being a touchdown. On Sunday, the veteran had five receptions, but for just 21 yards. The rookie set career bests with four receptions for 58 yards.
Outside of a couple of glimmers of the old player in week two during the season opener, Bryant has not really done much that would justify demanding that he see a starter’s quantity of snaps. neither has Smith-Schuster, necessarily, but he is also the more versatile player, who is quickly growing a rapport with Ben Roethlisberger.
With Eli Rogers being inserted back into action, I can’t help but wonder how this dynamic will play out. Given that Rogers is primarily a slot receiver—he does see a few snaps outside—one would think that his playing time will take away from Smith-Schuster’s slot work.
But that doesn’t mean he will be off the field. He could end up taking away from more of Bryant’s time on the outside. Even during the 2015 season, the truth is that Bryant frequently only saw about 60 to 80 percent of the team’s snaps in a game.
At the moment, the Steelers don’t really have a player who has absolutely seized the number two wide receiver position, though they have at least two contenders for the role. They do have a number of talented wide receivers, but behind Antonio Brown, it is all a jumble.
Yet it is the Kamehameha-firing, safety-blasting rookie out of USC who has had the clear upward trajectory, and who is quickly endearing himself to an audience that likely features a majority of people who were scratching their heads when he was selected. Will his role continue to expand in Kansas City?