JuJu Smith-Schuster might still be just 22 years old, but he has been around long enough to know both the importance of protecting the football and how to go about doing so. And the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver had every reason to expect and prepare for exactly what happened on their final offensive play of yesterday’s game, when Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey punched the ball out following a first-down reception in overtime play.
Because he had already attempted to do so earlier in the game, only Smith-Schuster was able to shake the effort and race up the left sideline for a 35-yard score, earlier in the game. And he’s seen it on tape. He knew, or should have known, that it was coming.
“Knowing that Marlon Humphrey, that is what he does”, he told reporters after the game. “He made a great play in a great situation and he came through for his team”. Ordinarily, that is what Smith-Schuster has done as well, with two unfortunately notable exceptions, the second coming yesterday afternoon.
Humphrey told reporters that his teammate, Deshon Elliott, got on him for his first miss that allowed a touchdown for not going for the tackle first before attempting the punchout move. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘nah, I’m gonna do it again’”, he told the team’s website. He did, at the end of the game, and it worked, the final turning point that decided the outcome.
“I was on the sideline thinking, ‘whatever happens right now, somebody is going to make a big play and be remembered forever for the outcome of this game’”, he said. He added that he thought it would be Lamar Jackson making the big play, but it turned out to be Justin Tucker. “And I guess maybe me a little bit”.
Humphrey’s overtime punchout set up the Ravens essentially already in field goal range. They picked up some extra yardage without gaining a first down to allow Tucker a shot from 46 yards, which he hit. It did immediately curve left before working its way back in, and even the most accurate kicker in history admitted he was a bit worried at first before that shift.
“It’s not really a thing you just do. It’s just kind of instinct”, the former first-round talent out of Alabama said about the punch-out technique. “You just practice so much that when you get the opportunity, you try to secure the tackle and then punch the ball out”.
The Steelers have seemingly been working harder at both punching the ball out and protecting it from being punched out based on the drills we’ve seen them run in training camp this year, some of them being brought in by Eddie Faulkner. Yet they’ve had some costly fumbles already this season that have arguably cost them games.