JuJu Smith-Schuster recorded 111 receptions for 1426 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the number two wide receiver on the team. Behind Antonio Brown, who is routinely among the most-targeted players in the entire NFL, year in and year out.
With him gone, some were looking at his 2018 numbers as the floor for the production that he should be able to reach working with Ben Roethlisberger as his undisputed number one target. Of course, we never really got the opportunity to see that this year, as Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury just six quarters into the year.
By the time Roethlisberger went down, the only other two quarterbacks in the system remaining combined for zero NFL passes in their careers. And zero snaps. Mason Rudolph, a former third-round draft pick, was in his second year, but had never even dressed for a game.
So it’s understandable that with the offense moving from Roethlisberger to Rudolph, the passing game would take a step back, both in prominence and performance. As a result, the receivers have had to keep their patience in check while things get sorted out.
But the first game following the bye week indicated a turning of the quarter. Rudolph threw for over 250 yards with two touchdowns, connecting on shots down the field. Smith-Schuster caught five passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Diontae Johnson got five as well, for 84 yards and a score of his own. James Washington added a reception for himself for 21 yards. He is starting to find his receivers.
Asked after the game if he felt that the passing game took a step forward last night, Smith-Schuster said, “yes, definitely”, with an evident sight of relief. “There were a few shots that we messed up on the connection, not being on the same page, but us connecting on those shots, easily we would’ve been going for 200-plus passing yards”.
Early in the game, in Rudolph’s first game in three week, since suffering a concussion, he was throwing off-line and off the mark, missing on multiple passes to Smith-Schuster and Washington as well. That included a big miss, throwing behind Washington, on fourth and six.
But they also settled down and settled in as the game progressed, and it turned out to be an all-around solid day after a disastrous start, not only showing that they can move the ball down the field—they capped off a 97-yard drive with a touchdown—but to do so in chunks (including two explosive-play passing touchdowns).
Is this the game for which the tide turns not just for the passing game, or for the offense, but for the Steelers as a whole? Winners of two straight and on the cusp of clawing back to .500, and relevance, are they letting the NFL know that they’re ready and they’re contenders? It’s hard to make that argument against the Miami Dolphins, but the only thing to do from here on out is to keep playing, and keep winning.