JuJu Smith-Schuster was seemingly on top of the football world coming out of the 2018 season. He soared into the mainstream with a breakout 111-reception, 1,426-yard regular season, performing so well that he received the Pittsburgh Steelers’ team MVP award, which may or may not have played a role in Antonio Brown going AWOL and ultimately forcing his way out of town.
Brown’s departure left a massive void that most were hopeful Smith-Schuster would be able to fill mostly on his own. The past two seasons, however, have left plenty of room for criticism from his critics. Outside of his nine touchdowns in 2020, his numbers have been fairly pedestrian, albeit not within extenuating circumstances.
During his recent appearance on Michael Irvin’s podcast, he opened up a bit about the difficulties of the past two seasons, particularly in 2019, when the Steelers only had Ben Roethlisberger under center for a game and a half.
“It was tough, not having Ben, the year we didn’t have AB, we didn’t have those guys on our team who are primary guys,” he said. “That was the year, I was in my third year, it was like, ‘Hey, this is what I can do, this is me, I don’t need the other person.’ I’m always working regardless of what’s going on.”
Smith-Schuster was on every ‘breakout player’ list you could find heading into the 2019 season, but through injuries of his own, including missing four games, and sub-standard quarterback play, he finished the year with just 42 receptions for 552 yards and three touchdowns.
“My numbers still showed. Even with Mason Rudolph, I didn’t have the best numbers, but I was out there working, doing what I can, working with the QB who doesn’t have the most experience,” he told Irvin. “And going into my fourth year, having so many weapons that we used, it was great. I can’t complain about my stature while being 11-0. Our goal is to win a world championship.”
Last season, the 24-year-old managed to snag 97 receptions on just 128 targets, catching nearly 76 percent of the passes in his direction. But they were so close to the line of scrimmage that he only averaged 8.6 yards per catch, translating to 831 receiving yards.
He did, however, record nine receiving touchdowns, as mentioned, which was a career-high. He closed out the year with a big game in the postseason, catching 13 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort to the Cleveland Browns.
There are reports that Smith-Schuster played through a knee injury last year, an injury that really occurred in the ninth game of the 2019 season, which caused him to miss four games. He alluded during the interview multiple times to his own health, perhaps an indication that there is something to the idea that his production and role were influenced by a bothersome knee that had him on the weekly injury report seemingly more often than not.