As we will do every Saturday to get you ready for the week’s game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. What will make or break the Pittsburgh Steelers during Sunday’s AFC North showdown against the Cincinnati Bengals.
X Factor: JuJu Smith-Schuster
For the first five weeks of the season, the X Factor for each of these posts have been on the defensive side of the ball. Which made sense. The offense is generally going to be fine. The defense feels more like a dart throw of the two. That’s why the spotlight fell on them.
Today, we’re putting it on the offense and specifically, JuJu Smith-Schuster. Not that I expect him to struggle but he’s going to be one of the key focuses in this game, on the field and on the broadcast. Expect his hit on Vontaze Burfict to be played roughly four million times before kickoff and discussed endlessly throughout the game. And based on what Paul Dehner told us on the Terrible Podcast yesterday, Burfict could be searching for some revenge.
So step one? Keep your cool.
And JuJu seems to be approaching the game with that mentality, downplaying the matchup and declining to talk about Burfict and this whole saga. But the two will see plenty of each other given how often Smith-Schuster works out of the slot, darting over the middle of the field, and taking on linebackers in the run game. Burfict’s going to be pissed, you know it. JuJu can’t get to that level. It’s not good for him or the rest of this offense.
On the field, he’s obviously going to play an important role. The Bengals, in the past, have done a great job of limiting Antonio Brown. They’ve done that by playing plenty of 2 Man coverage, which essentially brackets Brown and limits anything vertical and to the outside. That makes the middle of the field more attractive, where you have single coverage and the deep middle to work with against a two-high shell.
It means Smith-Schuster will be even more an appealing option.
This Steelers’ offense is off to a great start in the red zone. That’ll need to continue to top the Bengals. And Smith-Schuster is objectively “the guy” inside the 20. For Pittsburgh, he leads the team with six catches, 12 targets, and two touchdown.
He has a tough matchup in Darqueze Dennard, a former first round pick, but he’s gotta be his reliable, big-playmaking self for the Steelers to walk out with a victory.