JuJu Smith-Schuster’s name is associated with production almost as much as it is with having fun. Smith-Schuster, the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ Pro Bowl receiver who is still just 22-years-old, led the Steelers with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards last season. The youngest player in league history to reach 150 career receptions, Smith-Schuster broke Hall of Fame Randy Moss’ record earlier this season by becoming the youngest player in league history to reach 2,500 career receiving yards.
The numbers didn’t come as easily for Smith-Schuster during the first quarter of the 2019 regular season. Through four games, he has 17 receptions (on 27 targets) for 258 yards and three touchdowns, well below were he was in terms of production this time a year ago. In Monday’s 27-3 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Smith-Schuster was mostly used as a decoy while opening things up for rookie wideout Diontae Johnson (who caught all six of his targets for 77 yards and a score) and the rest of Pittsburgh’s offense. JuJu finished with three catches for 15 yards, his lowest receiving output since Week 12 of the 2017 season.
Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph, shortly after the Steelers’ convincing win over the Bengals, told reporters that he with regard to getting the ball to Smith-Schuster. He reiterated those comments on Thursday, as Rudolph and the Steelers continue preparations for Sunday’s home game against the favored Baltimore Ravens. Rudolph added that, while he wants to get JuJu more involved, the Steelers aren’t going to force the issue.
“You have to get the ball to your best players,” Rudolph said, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s something you look forward to every week. JuJu is a team player. There will be games like that where teams might take him away and other guys have to step up. That’s the kind of group we have. It’s a very unselfish group that understands even if I’m not scoring twice every game, I’ll block my butt off and encourage the younger guys. And that’s what he did. We’re trying to actively get him the ball. He’s a great player.”
Pittsburgh second-year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner, despite Rudolph and the Steelers’ offensive success Monday night, has been criticized for Pittsburgh’s lack of deep passes this season with Rudolph under center. Along with defending the team’s current offensive philosophy, Fichtner said that a lot of the team’s big plays in past years started as short passes.
“We always talk about catch short, run long,” he said. “You have to break tackles and make guys miss. That’s the way this league is. We call it playmakers. Playmakers have to make plays. If you’re on the field, you’re a playmaker — make plays.”
Fichtner specifically mentioned Antonio Brown, who made a career out of taking short passes and turning them into big gains during his nine-year run in Pittsburgh.
“You can throw short and run long all day,” Fichtner said. “I can’t count how many times we threw to 84 when he was here. We’d throw it 5 yards, and he’d take it for 70. That’s what you do. If you’re a playmaker, that’s what you do. JuJu caught a pass for 17 yards, and he took it for 76 [in Pittsburgh’s Week 2 loss to the 49ers]. Did we throw it deep? It was thrown 15 yards when he caught it. You have to evaluate that.”
When it comes to Pittsburgh’s passing attack, the Steelers’ plan is to give Rudolph passes he’s comfortable with while reducing his exposure to opposing defenses. Pittsburgh also has put an added emphasis on winning the turnover battle, something they seldom did during their non-playoff 2018 season. Rudolph, after throwing a costly interception that led to a San Francisco touchdown in Week 2, didn’t throw any interceptions Monday night. Conversely, Cincinnati committed two turnovers that included quarterback Andy Dalton‘s endzone interception in the fourth quarter.
With regard to JuJu, look for the Steelers to try to get him involved in Sunday’s game early with some quick passes and other plays near the line of scrimmage. That being said, Smith-Schuster won’t get back to having big games on a consistent basis until Pittsburgh’s other receivers step up. While Johnson is doing his part, no other Steelers receiver caught a pass Monday night, with 2018 second round pick James Washington being targeted just once.
Speaking of Washington (who starred alongside Rudolph during their time at Oklahoma State), Rudolph has confidence that he and his former college teammate will find their rhythm sooner rather than later.
“It’s just kind of happened that way,” Rudolph said Thursday with regard to having more success with other receivers, via Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Different people step up. … It’s just a matter of time before you get the right look, and you get connected.”
Look for the connection to get rolling this week.