The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is certainly counting upon a lot of young players to step up—well, the wide receiver position is, at least. Two of the top three targets figure to be a pair of players that combine for exactly one season of NFL experience, and less than 16 games in total.
Second-year JuJu Smith-Schuster had already moved into a full-time starting role over the course of his rookie season—and was the full-time number three by about the third or fourth game of the year—but he and everybody else on the team knows that there is more pressure on him this time around.
“He was one of the guys I said was going to have to take a big step this year because he burst on the scene last year as a young rookie that people didn’t know anything about”, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said about the 21-year-old. “It’s easier as a rookie to surprise people and have great years”.
During his rookie season, Smith-Schuster caught 58 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns. The yardage is the most in franchise history for a rookie through the air, and the other figures all rank within the top five as well. He did that in 14 games, and that includes the season opener in which he was not even targeted.
But, as Roethlisberger said, teams didn’t really know much about him last season. He was able to take people off-guard, as he surely did midseason in Detroit when he took a pass out of the slot all the way home for a 97-yard touchdown. His Madden speed rating shot up after that game.
“The key for him is going to be how can he bounce back and not just put together a good year like last year but be better?”, Roethlisberger questioned “It starts with work, and he puts a lot of work and effort and time in, so I’m looking forward kind of to what he can do this year”.
That is the key for Smith-Schuster. He is a dichotomy of youth and experience, free spirit and professionalism. He knows how to have fun, but also when to have fun, and when it’s time to get into the grind. The old adage ‘work hard, play hard’ surely applies to him quite well.
The topic of avoiding the sophomore slump when teams are better prepared to focus in on him is something that the second-year receiver has talked about himself. It’s something that he is aware of and looking to avoid.
Perhaps the team’s other young receiver, rookie James Washington, can help out, in one way or another. His deep threat can help Smith-Schuster in the shallow and intermediate areas. But if teams still focus on the ‘veteran’, then that will only provide Washington opportunities to make plays.
Oh, and there’s some guy named Antonio Brown in the mix as well. Sounds like an up-and-comer with some potential.