In spite of the incredible success that the Pittsburgh Steelers have experienced on the field over the course of the 2017 regular season, posting their best record at least since 2011, and perhaps since 2004, depending on the result of the finale, much of the attention that has been paid this year was reserved for a multitude of mini-dramas off the field.
I already talked about this yesterday, and yet I still probably left some out. Le’Veon Bell’s failure to reach a long-term deal and his subsequent holdout, matched with rap videos about his salary demands. The anthem controversy, which rankled some feathers even within the team, and was cited by some as a distraction during the Bears loss.
The on-field tragedy of Ryan Shazier’s devastating injury can be juxtaposed by petty nonsense like Antonio Brown’s assault of a water cooler, Martavis Bryant’s unrest, which resulted in his being benched for a game, and finally, The Melodrama of Deebo, which has played out over the past week.
But one of the chief bright spots throughout all of this has been the infectious youthful energy and enthusiasm of rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ second-round pick, whom many, including myself, regarded as something more like a luxury selection at the time.
But the USC product has proven to be an integral part of the team in more ways than one. His on-field productivity has been necessary to help get them to 12 wins and a bye week this season, of that I have no doubt in my mind. His positive vibes and light-hearted character have also provided a salve for much of the toxicity that the team has tried to look past as well.
So it’s no surprise that the wide receiver was the recipient of the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which is given to the team’s rookie of the year. And that is in no way to diminish the wonderful season of outside linebacker T.J. Watt their first-round pick, who would be deserving of the award as well, in another year.
Considering that he has missed two games this season, Smith-Schuster has put up some impressive statistics in his first year, most of which were achieved as a 20-year-old. In 13 games—12 if you exclude the opener, in which he was not targeted—he has put up 49 receptions for 774 yards and six touchdowns.
His 774 receiving yards ranks 34th in the NFL, while his 59.5 yards per game ranks 30th, meaning that he has been more productive per game than some teams’ top wide receivers. His six touchdowns are tied for 21st, with players like Doug Baldwin, Brandin Cooks, and Amari Cooper.
And despite being viewed as a possession receiver, his five receptions of 40 or more yards is tied for the fifth-most in the NFL. One of the few ahead of him is his teammate, Antonio Brown. It’s part of the reason that the Steelers have more passing plays of 40 or more yards than anybody in the NFL, averaging one per game.