It sounds in theory like it should be obvious that Mason Rudolph would have a lot of confidence in JuJu Smith-Schuster, the clear number one wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first season of the post-Antonio Brown epoch.
As a rookie in 2018, Rudolph had a ringside seat for the young man’s breakout emergence, finishing that season with 111 receptions for 1426 yards, numbers that rank second and first in Steelers history among all players other than Brown. Hines Ward’s lone triple-digit season in receptions topped out at 112.
He’s seen Smith-Schuster play and dominate and make incredible individual-effort plays. But to see him do it at the end of your own throws is a very different thing. And we’re starting to see that happening between the two young players as we get deeper and deeper into this season.
Smith-Schuster had his best game of the season on Monday night last week, a victory over the Miami Dolphins. He topped 100 yards for the first time on five receptions, including an explosive-play touchdown—his third score on the season—on what was more or less a jump ball. It was a play on which the receiver clearly gave an assist to the quarterback.
“I’ve seen him do that for a year now”, he told reporters last week, via a transcript provided by the team’s media department. “When you’re the one throwing it to him”, though, it’s a different presence.
I think this in-helmet experience, seeing that happen, seeing it take place in practice, as well as in the
game, seeing it come to fruition, it definitely adds the trust factor, as well as a lot of other guys, in big-time situations”, he added.
He also mentioned Diontae Johnson, the rookie wide receiver, who has made some big catches for Rudolph in his emerging starting career as well. Each of them have caught three touchdowns off of him, and they’ve come from distance, on big plays.
Seeing is believing, as they say, and as he continues to see his playmakers make plays, he is going to go to them more and give them more opportunities to make them. That is one of the important steps that this offense under Rudolph needed to take in order to move forward, and it appears that we are now seeing that happen.
Statistically, this hasn’t been exactly a homerun campaign for Smith-Schuster. He has just 30 receptions with nine games to play, totaling 443 yards and three scores. He is on-pace to catch 63 passes for 1013 yards and seven touchdowns. But as long as they start winning, he won’t care what his numbers look like.