When wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was originally drafted, many, including Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Martavis Bryant, believed that the rookie was a replacement for now former Steelers’ wide receiver Sammie Coates. Now more than halfway through the 2017 season, Smith-Schuster has replaced them both. Not only that, but the rookie wide receiver is hoping to accomplish a feat that no Steelers rookie receiver has done in a while – put together a full season.
Through 10 games, Smith-Schuster has recorded 33 receptions for 568 yards and 5 touchdowns as the Steelers secondary receiver behind Antonio Brown. Now with six games left to go, the only question that remains is if Smith-Schuster will falter down the stretch as the rookie adjusts to the NFL schedule, or if he will continue to produce during crunch time.
The slump down the stretch is a familiar position the Steelers have seen with other rookie wide receivers such as Bryant before. During Bryant’s rookie season in 2014, the receiver recorded three or fewer receptions in five of the final six games. Bryant recorded just one reception in three of those final six games. And after scoring six touchdowns in his first four games as a rookie, Bryant recorded just two touchdowns in his final six games.
Another victim of the rookie slump was former Steelers’ wide receiver Mike Wallace. During the final six games of his 2009 rookie season, Wallace recorded just 11 receptions for 256 yards. Wallace was also held to 20 yards or less in three of his final six games, another Steelers’ receiver who saw difficulty towards the tail end of their rookie season.
All these are indicators of a steep decline during the final stretch, whether it be caused due to a rookie learning curve or the nature of winter football is unknown. But it is a big reason why there have been few Steelers rookie receivers to immediately become a huge component of the offense. This is why other former rookie receivers such as Coates, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton and even Brown have had to either redshirt a season or see minimal field time during their rookie year. Though, Smith-Schuster has been portraited as mature beyond his age, thus giving him a chance at breaking the mold of the Steelers rookie slump in recent years.
For starters, Smith-Schuster and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have had almost telepathic chemistry this season, as no other quarterback – wide receiver duo has a higher passer rating this season according to a November 15th infographic from the NFL Network. This alone may help Smith-Schuster down the stretch as the receiver seems to the lone consistent playmaker behind the likes of Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Also in Smith-Schuster’s favor is three of the final six opponents on the Steelers’ schedule have a pass defense ranked 18th or worse.
With a soulmate-like chemistry between Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger and a favorable schedule approaching, the former USC receiver has better odds than his predecessors at avoiding the recent slump that has plagued the Steelers’ rookie receivers.
By the way, Wednesday is Smith-Schuster’s birthday and the rookie wide receiver is now 21 years old.