To come into the league and be able to play the number two role alongside a wide receiver as talented as Antonio Brown, as Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster got to experience over the course of his first two seasons in the league, can be a blessing and a curse.
Even in Brown’s shadow, Smith-Schuster’s talent was able to shine through, in no small part because of that shadow that Brown casts. He consistent draws the attention of the defense, requiring them to put two or even three players on assignment on any given play to cover him, which leaves others in single coverage as a result.
That helped Smith-Schuster put up 169 receptions for 2343 yards and 14 touchdowns over the course of the first 30 games of his NFL career, including 111 receptions for 1429 yards and seven touchdowns in 2018. But now he will be the player that defensive coordinators will plan around and double team.
That was among the topics that Michael Irvin discussed with the 22-year-old during an interview for the NFL Network following Tuesday’s practice. When asked how he feels about being the one who gets the double teams in 2019, he said, “it’s an honor”.
“It’s a blessing to have this role. To be that guy where other teams have that respect to stop me. But at the end of the day, I’m going into this game thinking about, I’ve got the best coaches, setting me up in the best situation possible”.
Skeptics have pointed to the 2018 season finale, in which Brown was benched. In that game, the offense labored, putting up just 16 points, albeit in a win, with one touchdown. Smith-Schuster had just five catches for 37 yards, but also the one touchdown.
The doubters fear that this is the post-AB future. But they forget that in about two and a half games at the end of the 2017 season, after Brown was injured, Smith-Schuster caught 21 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns. Only two receptions for 30 yards came in the game against the New England Patriots prior to Brown’s injury in the second quarter.
When it comes to being double-teamed, though, Smith-Schuster wasn’t worried. He said that he doesn’t care about how many yards he puts up. He knows his coverage will open things up for others. “We’ve got guys like Donte Moncrief, Ryan Switzer, Eli Rogers, James Washington, and those guys are gonna come up and make their plays”, he said.
“When AB was here, he was getting all the double teams and I had an opportunity to shine. When I get double-teamed, a lot of young guys will have the opportunity to come up and shine”, the new number one concluded.
It’s possible that the offense will become more spread out and diversified (Vance McDonald is another player he named elsewhere), but they have had a target hog for so long that it’s hard to imagine him not getting his share of opportunities, in the ballpark of 90-100 receptions for 1000-1300 yards and 7-10 touchdowns.