There can be no mercy at times within a passionate fanbase, and it doesn’t take much to turn a hero into a villain. All offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers fans turned to JuJu Smith-Schuster as the affable anti-Antonio Brown, but following his costly overtime fumble on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, a small but vocal segment of the fanbase is criticizing him for his off-field exploits that had previously been endearing.
Despite it being just his second career fumble in over 200 total touches—193 receptions, one carry, and nine kick returns, plus four more touches in the postseason—many have been very harsh against the third-year wide receiver’s ability to hold onto the ball through a Marlon Humphrey punch, which ultimately cost the Steelers the game.
His teammate and draft classmate James Conner came to his defense a bit earlier this week during his radio show on The Fan. “That play, I’m not making no excuses, but I would love to see how many people hold onto the ball in that situation”, he said. “I know JuJu’s gonna be fine. Just sucks, the timing that it happened”.
“JuJu barely had time to bring the ball in”, he said earlier in the interview. “He caught it, took about one and a half steps, and then, when you’re holding the ball and protecting yourself and somebody comes with their right arm as fast and as hard as Humphrey came, the ball’s gonna come out sometimes. The good thing about it is we’ve got the pieces here to correct it, and we can learn from it”.
Keen observers have noted that it wasn’t the first time that Smith-Schuster saw that punch move from Humphrey, as the third-year cornerback attempted the same during a 35-yard touchdown that he had scored in the first half. Only that time it failed. The wide receiver admitted after the game that he knew he should have been prepared for it.
Said Conner on the topic of ball security—he had his own costly fumble late in their loss to the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago, and like Smith-Schuster, another one last year—“we do ball security drills. We work on ball security, but nothing’s every gonna be perfect. It’d be nice if no one was ever gonna fumble”, but it doesn’t work that way.
The Steelers are hamstringing themselves with this untimely turnovers at seemingly the worst possible moments, to be sure, playing a big role in their current 1-4 record. Change one or two plays here and there and they could easily be 3-2 and leading the AFC North. But you can’t change the past, only the future.
“JuJu’s gonna be alright. He’s a heck of a player”, Conner said. On the season, Smith-Schuster has 24 receptions for 333 yards and two touchdowns, not exactly on the Pro Bowl pace he set last year, but he has already played with three different quarterbacks. He’s currently projected to catch 77 passes for 1066 yards and six touchdowns.