While JuJu Smith-Schuster sat by himself on his couch watching the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens without him, he couldn’t help but find himself getting hungry. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw for over 500 yards during the game, and he watched his teammates among the offensive skill positions feasting on Raven.
Antonio Brown, as he is wont to do, recorded 11 receptions for 213 yards, while tight end Jesse James had a career game, coming up just short of 100 yards himself. Running back Le’Veon Bell had a key 77 yards through the air, while Vance McDonald, Martavis Bryant, and Eli Rogers all had their moments. Roosevelt Nix had one reception for one yard, but it was a score.
And yet, Smith-Schuster’s plate laid bare, because he was the victim of a public relations crisis that the league was dealing with at the time, which resulted in a knee-jerk reaction in suspending him for a game after he executed an illegal blindside block and then stood over the injured player.
In his first game back this past week, however, he picked his fork back up and started eating. Smith-Schuster led all Steelers players with 114 receiving yards against the Patriots on six reception, including a 69-yard gain that set up a first and goal at the 10-yard line and a chance to win the game, even though things didn’t end up working out as they should have.
But now Brown is sidelined with a calf injury. He said that the team expects him back in time for the playoffs, but in the meantime, “we just have to take his plate and eat off it”. And when it’s Antonio Brown that you’re talking about, there is going to be a lot of food.
Brown accounts for 31 percent of the Steelers’ targets in the passing game, 30 percent of the receptions, 38 percent of the receiving yardage, and 35 percent of the receiving touchdowns. So let’s just say that the team has about a full third of its passing game to replicate in Brown’s absence, which frankly sounds just about right.
The Steelers haven’t played a meaningful regular season game without Brown since 2012, though they did play one postseason game without him in 2015. That game didn’t end as would have been hoped, but the team is better prepared to cope without him this time around.
And that has a lot to do with Smith-Schuster, the rookie whom many regarded at the time of the selection as a luxury pick in the second round. Many even felt that he should not have been the receiver chosen, but he leads all rookies in receiving yards per game.
He will be picking up his fork and scraping as much off of Brown’s plate as possible before the rest get a chance, but all of them—Bryant, Rogers, James, McDonald, Bell, and others—will be trying to dig in as well. We will see how full they get.