Kevin Gorman: Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster avoids sophomore slump
JuJu Smith-Schuster’s second NFL season started with a warning from his own quarterback that the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver would require a big step forward after an eye-opening rookie campaign.
If JuJu is wearing a bull’s-eye, it’s as Ben Roethlisberger’s top target the past two games.
Smith-Schuster has three consecutive 100-yard receiving games — as many as he had as a rookie — and ranks third in the league in targets (38), fourth in receptions (27) and fifth in receiving yards (356).
So much for a sophomore slump.
For the second consecutive year, the Baltimore Ravens mark the Steelers’ fourth game of the season. Where Smith-Schuster was an afterthought last year — he had five catches (on 10 targets) for 55 yards and a touchdown through the first three games — he now is playing a prominent role for the Steelers.
“It’s a lot different, the chemistry and the flow,” said Smith-Schuster, who had nine receptions for 116 yards Monday at Tampa. “Last year, I was out there running around with my head chopped off. This year, I know what to do and where to go. I know all the positions, so it’s very fun for me to be out there.”
Just don’t confuse Smith-Schuster for the Steelers’ All-Pro receiver, even if he has better numbers than Antonio Brown so far. If anything, JuJu has been the beneficiary of Brown drawing double teams. It’s premature to say Smith-Schuster is performing like a No. 1 receiver, but he’s close: Over the past 16 games, he has 85 catches for 1,273 yards and eight touchdowns. By comparison, Brown has 114 catches for 1,561 yards and 11 touchdowns over his past 16.
Not quite AB, but not bad.
“He’s playing like that now. He has to, you know? He’s a starter,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said of Smith-Schuster. “I think all of them, when you’re out there on the field, my approach would be you’re a (No.) 1 receiver. I think if you weren’t thinking like that, then you probably wouldn’t want to be here.”
Instead of spending time worrying about who’s the top target, the Steelers should be celebrating that Smith-Schuster has made up for the departure of Martavis Bryant and, to a lesser degree, the absence of Le’Veon Bell while rookie receiver James Washington learns the system.
At 6-foot-1, 215 pounds, Smith-Schuster slides seamlessly from the outside to the slot, creating mismatches with his size against nickel cornerbacks and his speed against linebackers. He can make catches over the middle or bust big plays, as proven by the 97-yard touchdown in his seven-catch, 193-yard breakout game at Detroit last year.
And, like Hines Ward before him, JuJu loves to block.
“That’s my biggest pet peeve,” Smith-Schuster said. “You’ve got to be a complete wide receiver and do everything: block down the field, being able to catch the ball and run and score touchdowns.”
JuJu’s big adventure hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates. Veteran receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey believes Smith-Schuster’s high football IQ has allowed him to build a rapport with Roethlisberger.
“You can see they have a great connection, a connection I’ve seen with Ben and AB,” Heyward-Bey said. “Hopefully, it can grow into something like that. … I think the way it’s going to play out, teams are going to focus more on JuJu and things will open up for AB.”
Smith-Schuster expects “very soon” to start drawing double teams and said “they’re going to slow me down.” Where Brown prefers to take a wait-and-see approach on that, Smith-Schuster has borrowed a page from Brown’s playbook and is determined to destroy doubt.
“I’m going out there and playing the best I can, whoever is on me — outside or inside, No. 1 or No. 2 — it doesn’t really matter,” Smith-Schuster said. “I know my team has got my back. When I go out there, I’m going to do my best to perform.”
So far, he’s performing like a top target, even with a bull’s-eye on his back.
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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.