It was quite shocking to see Pittsburgh Steelers’ wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury in Week 5 against the Denver Broncos, return to the practice field Thursday at the Steelers’ UPMC South Side facility ahead of the Wild Card matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Though it’s unlikely that Smith-Schuster, who had his 21-day clock to return from Injured Reserve start on Thursday, will make a return to the field so quickly, his presence on the practice field Thursday was a real shot in the arm for the Steelers, who are currently 12.5-point underdogs in Sunday’s matchup with the Chiefs inside Arrowhead Stadium.
Despite being unlikely to play, Smith-Schuster would be a serious boost to a passing attack that has struggled after the catch without him. One guy that was amped to see him on the practice field Thursday was Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Appearing on 102.5 DVE Friday morning ahead of his 23rd playoff start, Roethlisberger stated that he though Smith-Schuster looked “awesome” at practice Thursday, but that he won’t speculate on if the fifth-year receiver will get back on the field Sunday night or not.
“I don’t have an answer to the possibilities or any of that stuff,” Roethlisberger said to the DVE Morning Show crew, according to audio via iHeart.com. “Yes, he was at practice yesterday. I thought he looked awesome, but it’s his body. Only he knows how he feels and how it felt. And, you know, he had a pretty significant injury, and so, the way JuJu plays the game is physical. We all know it. We all love it.
“He could boost this offense. And even if it’s like you say a few plays…it’s the encouragement, the energy he brings on the sideline,” Roethlisberger added. “Anything like that to have one of your guys out there would be huge for us. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We’ll see how he feels today.”
It’s certainly a long shot to even think Smith-Schuster would come off of Injured Reserve so quickly after a significant shoulder injury and subsequent surgery in mid-October, but crazier things have happened ahead of a playoff matchup.
Should Smith-Schuster return to the lineup, it would open things up for the rest of the offense, specifically guys like Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, who have had up and down performances with Smith-Schuster out of the lineup and Ray-Ray McCloud serving as not much of a threat out of the slot.
It would be unfair to expect Smith-Schuster to return to the lineup and be the savior on the road against the Chiefs, but there’s something to be said about the added boost mentally and emotionally the energetic receiver would bring to the table. Would that be that much of a difference maker in a playoff matchup? Maybe not, but it certainly couldn’t hurt the Steelers in any way, considering they’re already playing with house money.
If he looks good, feels ready and wants to go, the Steelers should do everything they possibly can to get Smith-Schuster on the field Sunday, even if it’s for just 10-15 snaps. We’ll see if he practices again on Friday. If he does, the arrow is clearly pointing in the right direction for Sunday’s game for the young receiver.