Steelers’ JuJu Smith-Schuster draws Hines Ward comparisons
JuJu Smith-Schuster turns 22 on Thanksgiving. On Tuesday, his coach gave him something to be thankful for.
The gift of high praise.
During his weekly news conference, Mike Tomlin was asked about the continued emergence of Smith-Schuster in his second NFL season.
Tomlin compared Smith-Schuster to the most accomplished receiver he has coached, one of the legends in Pittsburgh Steelers history.
“He’s Hines Ward-like,” was part of what Tomlin said of Smith-Schuster.
Really? Ward, as in the player who recorded 1,000 career catches, earned Super Bowl MVP honors and was a two-time Super Bowl champion Ward.
“I realize what I said when I said that,” Tomlin said. “But this guy enjoys it. He’s embracing it, and I think it helps us. I don’t know that we’ve had a guy that I can even make that loose comparison to.”
That includes, apparently, Antonio Brown, Smith-Schuster’s teammate who is a four-time first-team All-Pro.
After Smith-Schuster’s eight-catch, 104-yard effort during Sunday’s come-from-behind 20-16 victory at Jacksonville, the second-year receiver was the recipient of effusive raves not only from his coach but from his quarterback.
During his weekly radio segment on 93.7 FM on Tuesday, Ben Roethlisberger affirmed Smith-Schuster is “becoming a big-time player right in front of our eyes.”
“He’s becoming a big-time receiver, making plays,” Roethlisberger said. “I’ll say it again, how proud I am. I really think he’s one of the main reasons we won that game.
“He made plays for us when we needed him to make plays for us. I told him (Monday) night when I texted him, ‘Thank you for being special and keep doing it.’ ”
Roethlisberger referenced the Steelers moving Smith-Schuster from his more customary slot position to the outside, where he was matched up against All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey or Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye.
“It didn’t matter who it was (against),” Roethlisberger said, “… he did it.”
What was perhaps most eyebrow-raising was how much Roethlisberger looked to Smith-Schuster — and not, among others, Brown — when the game was on the line.
During the Steelers’ final three drives, they scored 14 points and accumulated 160 yards of offense in a combined 7 minutes, 49 seconds. Roethlisberger targeted Smith-Schuster seven times over that span, completing six for 88 yards.
Roethlisberger completed seven passes for 73 yards to the rest of the team, including two for 24 yards to Brown.
“What makes (Smith-Schuster) special is he’s still working and trying to be better,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s not satisfied, and he’s not going to let his play fall off. We’ll keep challenging him and pushing him and see what we can get from him.”
Tomlin laughed off the significance of moving Smith-Schuster around in the offensive formation, pointing out the Steelers did that last year when he was a rookie.
“That was one of the things that really kind of made him attracted to us: his football intelligence, maturity beyond his years,” Tomlin said of Smith-Schuster, a 2017 second-round pick. “He played inside and out at USC, so I’m not going to pretend like we’re splitting the atom.”
Still one of the NFL’s youngest players — the 21-year-old Smith-Schuster is the third-youngest Steeler — he ranks among the AFC’s top five in catches (64) and receiving yards (866).
Tomlin, though, appreciates the contributions of Smith-Schuster for far more than his numbers.
“Just his attitude regarding his role in the run game, his knowledge and awareness in terms of blocking box defenders,” Tomlin said. “Young guys in terms of declarations, identifying fronts, blocking linebackers at times, support secondary people and so forth. Not only does he have the physical attributes to do it, he’s got the mentality to do it. He’s got the intelligence to do it.
“He’s Hines Ward-like in some of those things.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.