There seems to be a lot of skepticism, even pessimism, about JuJu Smith-Schuster, at least within a certain segment of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ fan base. There are even those who have overly concerned themselves with how much time he spends on social media, and have convinced themselves that it means he’s not working hard enough at his game.
His numbers last season don’t help anything. He caught just 42 passes for 552 yards and three touchdowns, numbers that represent a precipitous drop, even from what he put up during his rookie season.
But those numbers came wit ha series of asterisks, including the loss of Antonio Brown, the injury of Ben Roethlisberger, and his own injuries that he dealt with, including a knee injury that cost him a full quarter of the season.
Smith-Schuster was on the precipice of breaking out and becoming a star this year after his shining 2018 campaign, during which he became a Pro Bowler through the back door (as an alternate selection when somebody backed out). A perfect storm of obstacles blocked his path from taking his game to another level.
“JuJu, he wants to take that next step, too”, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert old Mark Madden last week, when asked about the team’s expectations for him in 2020, “and he was trying to do that last year, and he, like James Conner, had a couple of acute injuries that held him back”.
“And again, when you’re not playing with the caliber quarterback like he had in Ben, when anybody goes from their starter to their backup, of course there’s a drop in talent”, he added. “But there’s also a drop in familiarity. Because Ben has a certain comfort level and knows how to work with receivers”.
When working with Mason Rudolph, Smith-Schuster caught 28 of 46 targets for 396 yards, with three touchdowns, but it also produced three interceptions (one was because of a drop). With Devlin Hodges, he caught six of 13 passes for 51 yards. In his six quarters with Roethlisberger, he caught eight of 11 passes for 105 yards, including six first downs. Only half of his receptions from both Rudolph and Hodges produced first downs.
“I think that was all a big part of it, but I’m sure JuJu wants to re-establish himself as a 100-catch receiver that’s one of the best in the league, because really, in 2018, he was that guy”, Colbert summarized. “We’re hopeful he can be, because, again, selfishly, if he is, that’ll help us. I think a big, big part of that will be having Ben available to him. I think JuJu will be a better receiver with Ben”.
2020 just so happens to be a contract year for the 23-year-old. The Steelers want to keep him. But that also want to see him play this year before agreeing to anything.