In Pittsburgh, the saying is next man up. But to replace a versatile player like WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s more like next men up. Talking with reporters during his Tuesday press conference, Mike Tomlin outlined the gameplan to replace Smith-Schuster, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Sunday’s win over Denver.
“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,” Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon. “When you talk about losing a guy like JuJu and how he functions within the framework of our offense, usually you’re talking about multiple people, assuming the role in some form or fashion. Particularly in the short-term…we’ll work that division of labor and gain an understanding of who does what well.”
James Washington will become the #3 wide receiver and see a big increase in playing time. He’s likely to see the majority of snaps as the outside Z receiver, pushing Chase Claypool, who thrived in the slot last week, into more of an interior role. Even with the injury, the team has a solid group of top-three wide receivers. Tomlin said he was confident in Washington’s ability to step up.
“James is a professional and quality dude and teammate. He’s always ready, always working. He’s low to no maintenance I got a lot of respect for him as a player and as a man.”
It’s the new depth, the guys behind them, who will really be tested.
The other two WRs currently on the 53-man roster are Ray-Ray McCloud, a scrappy slot receiver and returner but someone who hasn’t made much of an impact on offense outside of gadget-type plays. There’s also Cody White, a big, versatile player who can play in the slot but has limited NFL experience and just two career receptions. He dropped his only target last week.
On the practice squad sits Steven Sims, a McCloud-like player but with a more proven resume offensively. The team is also signing veteran Anthony Miller to its practice squad. Miller had his moments in Chicago, catching 49 passes for 485 yards and two touchdowns in 2020, before being traded to Houston this summer. Miller appeared in two games, catching five passes, before being released.
Pittsburgh could expand its use of 12 personnel too, and give more snaps to Pat Freiermuth, who has the best hands on the team. Freiermuth has played just under half the offensive snaps this season.
Tomlin also brushed aside concerns about a lack of leadership in the Steelers’ wide receiver room.
“That’s team. That’s easy. Guys do that simply by being themselves. The same way JuJu developed that persona and that ability to be that for us. By simply being himself. I’m not going to ask anyone to be anything other than themselves. And that happens organically.”
Set to be a free agent for the 2022 offseason, Smith-Schuster may have played his final down in Pittsburgh. He, in large part, returned to play with Ben Roethlisberger, who is likely to retire after the season ends. There is a path for Smith-Schuster to return. His market has taken a huge hit because of the injury. Odds are Smith-Schuster will start over with a clean slate and a new team this time next season.