Entering the 2021 season, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was the second-longest-tenured player on the offense for the Pittsburgh Steelers, behind only quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is almost old enough to be his father.
Though just 24 years old, Smith-Schuster was in his fifth season this year and pretty much the ‘wily veteran’ of an overall pretty young offense, which this year features four rookie starters, not to mention a couple of second-year starters, as well.
Aside from his experience, his going down with a shoulder injury is also just a human loss that the locker room will have to process. I think head coach Mike Tomlin best expressed those sentiments in his pre-game press conference yesterday, while also acknowledging the need to move forward.
“Sorry for JuJu. I’m appreciative of him, the spirit that he brings, the effort that he brings, the quality of his play”, he said. “But that’s what makes football the ultimate team game. We’ll be calling on a number of people to bridge the gap in the short and the long term in terms of bringing what he provides”.
With Smith-Schuster sidelined, it will allow James Washington to climb back into the starting lineup, and he is certainly a player who is very eager to contribute, for not the least reason being the fact that he is in a contract year.
Washington missed Sunday’s game due to a groin injury, but I have a feeling that groin is going to feel pretty good today. The Steelers also have Ray-Ray McCloud and Cody White on the 53-man roster, as well as two players with NFL experience on the practice squad in Steven Sims and Anthony Miller.
“My heard aches for JuJu, but I’m equally as excited for guys like the guys that I mentioned”, Tomlin said, “and I know their preparedness, I know their desire to be positive contributors to our efforts, and so I’m excited about watching them, first, prepare, but then ultimately, perform”.
Even without Smith-Schuster, of course, this is still an offense that, on paper, has talent. Their top wide receivers moving forward are Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Johnson has three touchdowns so far this season and 305 receiving yards on 25 receptions. Claypool has 341 receiving yards on 20 catches with a touchdown. Both of them have missed a game this year.
And they also have Najee Harris at running back, and Eric Ebron and Pat Freiermuth at tight end, so they certainly have options. Smith-Schuster has been a valuable player, make no mistake about that, but they have others who are eager to fill the void.