In NFL history, there aren’t many receivers like Hines Ward. And JuJu Smith-Schuster isn’t quite at that level. Not yet, anyway. But if you had to argue who is the closest to #86, it’s probably JuJu. Mike Tomlin made that comparison at his press conference today when asked to evaluate the improvement Smith-Schuster has made from year one to year two.
“His attitude regarding his role in the run game,” Tomlin told reporters. “His knowledge and awareness in terms of blocking box defenders. Young guys in terms of declarations. identifying fronts, blocking linebackers at times, blocking support secondary people as needed. Not only does he have the physical attributes to do it he’s got the mentality to do it, the intelligence to do it. He’s Hines Ward like in some of those things.”
He’s part of a new era of slot receiver play in the NFL: the big, inside receiver. Guys like Smith-Schuster or players like Michael Thomas and Cooper Kupp who are versatile enough to play inside/out. They aren’t the first, Anquan Boldin lived there for years and though not nearly as successful, Jordan Matthews has mostly played in the slot for his career, but guys like JuJu are doing it at a high level.
Plays like this crack block in Week Three against Tampa Bay. Not stuff you see from most receivers in today’s game not only because of physical limitations but a “want to” in the run game.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 25, 2018
That might be the most dramatic looking such play he’s made this year but far from the only one.
For what he did as a receiver, Smith-Schuster was hailed as the “hero” Sunday by Ben Roethlisberger. His 21 yard backshoulder reception set up Vance McDonald’s touchdown, making it a one-score game. On the game-winning drive, he ran a double-move to beat A.J. Bouye for a gain of 35. Both were tough catches and two of the top plays of the game.
Two remarkable catches by JuJu Smith-Schuster in the final five minutes of the game. Find the ball, adjust, make the play against two top corners. His toughness, mental and physical, is off the charts. Love this kid! #Steelers pic.twitter.com/TREHWRbZZI
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 19, 2018
And oh yeah, he doesn’t turn 22 until Thursday. He’s the guy who, literally, can win you the game on Sunday and then go trick-or-treating during the week. JuJu is a fun-loving guy, and definite crowd favorite (he drew the biggest cheers at training camp), but on the field, he’s professional and mature beyond his years.
Tomlin said making that Ward comparison was high praise. But a deserved compliment.
“I realized what I said when I said that. This guy enjoys it. He’s embracing it. I think it helps us. I don’t know that we’ve had a guy that I can make that even loose comparison to.”
Through ten games, he’s still the Steelers leader in receptions (64) and yards (866), narrowly edging out Antonio Brown in both categories. Brown, of course, is still dominating when it comes to the end zone, tied for the league-lead with 11 scores.