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Druin: It’s Time for Pittsburgh to Rally Around JuJu Smith-Schuster

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I’ll be honest, I wasn’t always a big fan of JuJu Smith-Schuster.

The Pittsburgh Steelers receiver portrayed immaturity in all the wrong ways when he first came in the league. Perhaps that was expected for a young man who wasn’t legally able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage when he was drafted. From the YouTube videos of him walking to class fully dressed in football equipment to his Fortnite savy, you wouldn’t expect “professional football player” to be JuJu’s occupation upon first glimpse.

It wasn’t just myself that initially was skeptical of Smith-Schuster. Some of those in Pittsburgh’s beloved sports media (you know who) have taken to social media to continually slander the 22-year-old receiver.

The hate/envy even made its way into the locker room. During Smith-Schuster’s impressive rookie campaign, teammate/fellow receiver Martavis Bryant grew tired of playing second fiddle to the up and coming USC product, taking to the comment section of Instagram to voice his displeasure.

During the 2018 NFL Draft Bryant was sent packing to Oakland for a third round pick, thus opening the spot for Smith-Schuster to officially claim his spot as the secondary receiver opposite of Antonio Brown. A Brown/Smith-Schuster duo was to be considered one of the best in the league, and was expected to lead the Steelers into deep playoff runs for the next few seasons.

Fast forward to the end of the 2018 season, where Smith-Schuster led the team in receptions and receiving yards, upending the perennial All-Pro Brown in both categories.

Brown had long been a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. The sixth round draft pick out of Central Michigan University worked his way to being the top receiver in the game. After watching Mike Wallace wave goodbye to Pittsburgh and chase the money elsewhere, Brown was the man who had the entire city walking around like business was boomin’.

Yet even the sun sets in paradise, as Brown has now evolved into a man who no longer wishes to be in the city that once claimed him as their own. Through a series of odd acts such as declaring himself “Mr. Big Chest” and erratic behavior on social media, Brown has turned himself into villain seemingly overnight.

There are no sole attributes to the shift in attitude in Brown, but falling behind a second year receiver in two major categories likely didn’t sit well with Brown while also watching Smith-Schuster win the team’s MVP award in late December. Did Jealousy drive Brown to his breaking point? The truth may never be revealed, yet Smith-Schuster’s success hasn’t appeared to sit well with Brown.

And here we sit, as a proud sports town, in what feels like the darkest of days to be a card-carrying member of the proud towel wavers. Pittsburgh remains on the forefront of headlines for all the wrong reasons, as the Steelers will continue to feel the PR ripple effects of paying Brown to only trade him a few years later.

After the eventual dealing of Brown, Pittsburgh will officially put a close to the “Killer B’s” chapter, ultimately walking away empty-handed despite possessing one of the most talented offensive rosters in football.

A receiver that continually couldn’t stay clean off the field, a running back that chased the money and a mega-star talent forcing his way out-of-town. Dreams of Bryant, Bell and Brown hoisting a Lombardi trophy have now transformed into empty avenues that will never be explored.

Yet gloomy times allow stars to shine.

Last week, it was announced that Smith-Schuster established the JuJu Foundation, a non-profit organization that is “dedicated to the support of youth initiatives and lifting the spirits of those in need” per the official website.

“This is a dream come true to establish our foundation,” said Smith-Schuster. “This will be a meaningful platform to make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Change will be coming to the Steelers locker room, likely sooner rather than later. After QB Ben Roethlisberger retires, Smith-Schuster will need to grow into a leader for the next generation wearing black and gold.

JuJu has connected on a level with fans that only a handful of other athletes in professional sports can attest to. Smith-Schuster, despite being thrown into tough situations involving media and teammates, has done nothing in his first two seasons to prove he will fall down a slippery slope similar to the big names that came before him. JuJu has balanced a life of hard work/production on the field, while remaining personable and jubilant off the field.

It’s time, Pittsburgh.

Smith-Schuster has withstood the fire thrown his way and remains standing. Fans have laughed with the young star in the making while he lost his bike, and cried with him after a crucial fumble late in New Orleans. JuJu embraces everything about being part of the Steelers organization, and it’s officially time to put him on the same pedestal that we built for Bell and Brown.

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Steelers Now Staff 2020 Season Predictions

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Here are our Steelers Now staff predictions for the 2020 season. Think you know better than we do? Leave your prediction in the comments.

NICK FARABAUGH, STEELERS NOW ANALYST, REPORTER

The Steelers boast an impressive defense. They return most of the guys from last year except Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron, but they do add back in Stephon Tuitt. This is still a defense that has playmakers at every level. From T.J. Watt and Heyward to Devin Bush to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, this is a defense that offensive coordinators do not want to face, period. This team had an astonishing 38 turnovers forced last year, and I have to think while they may not repeat that number, they’ll get close to it. It was a nice depth signing to bring on Sean Davis as well in case of any injuries to the safety group. I don’t see this defense taking much of a step back.

However, the offense should take a step forward. After a year without Ben Roethlisberger, he is back and by all reports looks great. The additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool give him an even more expansive group of weapons than he had coming into last year. The offensive line depth looks fantastic thanks to the signing of Stefen Wisniewski and picking Kevin Dotson in the 4th round. This team has a lot of schematic flexibility. With Matt Canada bringing his motion and play-action concepts with him as well, this offense has a lot of upside to it. I think this offense takes a big step up this year, especially in the red zone.

The Steelers prediction is not too tough on paper. The NFC East is an OK division, and while the NFC South has some tough teams, the Steelers are very capable of winning all those games. Not pulling the Chiefs is a pretty nice bonus, too.

Season Prediction: 11-5

Three other predictions that I will throw out:

• Eric Ebron will lead this offense in receiving touchdowns. He’s going to be a huge threat in the red zone for this team.

• Steven Nelson gets 3+ interceptions this year. It was a bit of a down year in terms of ball production for him last year, but that changes this year.

• James Conner stays healthy enough and gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

ALAN SAUNDERS, STEELERS NOW MANAGING EDITOR, BEAT WRITER

With a very, very weird offseason, I think the beginning of the 2020 season is going to be tough, even for good football teams. We’ve already seen that through Week 1, with the San Francisco 49ers dropping a game to the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles finding ways to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins.

But the Steelers have been blessed with a very light open to their season. They’ll get the New York Giants, fresh off a coaching change, followed by the listless Denver Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, setting the team up for a potential 3-0 start before facing a pair of playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Later non-division games at Jacksonville, against Washington, at Buffalo and against Indianapolis all seem very winnable.

Divisional play should also lean the Steelers’ way, as Cleveland has not significantly improved, and while Cincinnati will be much better, they were so bad last season, it would hard to be worse. They should be favored in four of six division games.

From a team standpoint, they certainly got better than last year, simply by the addition of Roethlisberger. If this defense can drag the offense to an 8-8 record without Roethlisberger, how good can they be with him? Truly, the sky is the limit, as there isn’t a single game on the Steelers’ slate that seems unwinnable at the outset of the season.

The lone stumbling block will be a Baltimore Ravens team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last year and also got better in the offseason, adding defensive lineman Calais Campbell and five top-100 draft picks from the 2020 NFL Draft. The Ravens are the best team in the division, and even Roethlisberger won’t be a sure thing to change that math in the Steelers’ favor.

Season prediction: 11-5, No. 5 seed in AFC, loss in AFC Championship Game

Bonus Steelers predictions:

• Diontae Johnson will be the team’s leading receiver.
• Three Steelers will have more than 10 sacks.
• Chase Claypool will score more than four touchdowns.

Bonus NFL predictions:

• The New England Patriots will have a better record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• The New York Jets will finish in last place.
• Joe Burrow will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

MIKE VUKOVCAN, CO-FOUNDER

12-4. The Steelers will win the AFC North and will play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl. The team’s biggest offensive weapon will be Ebron.

MIKE ASTI, DIGITAL CONTENT MANAGER

11-5. I have Steelers winning AFC North because of actual stability at quarterback and another year together for the defense. Roethlisberger will also be more efficient than he’s been because of the addition of Ebron in particular, who will be among best offseason additions throughout league.

CALE BERGER, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER

11-5. Win AFC north. lose to Chiefs in AFC championship. Defense will be stellar. Diontae Johnson team MVP

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Vukovcan: Fitzpatrick Trade Sign Steelers Plan to Contend in 2019

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have earned the reputation of being an organization that’s conservative and don’t make a habit of making off-the-field moves that involve risk, which makes the moves they’ve done in the last six months shocking.

First, they traded up into the top ten of the 2019 NFL Draft in order to acquire linebacker Devin Bush. Then Monday night, they shocked everyone by trading a 2020 first round pick for Miami Dolphins defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick.

How unusual is this trade? This will be the first time since 1967 –before Chuck Noll — that the Steelers won’t have a first round pick in the NFL Draft.

The fact that Kevin Colbert made this trade after learning that Ben Roethlisberger will miss the remainder of the 2019 due to elbow surgery is what has many people around the league and the city scratching their heads.

The thought by many is that the Steelers are going to be one of the worst teams in the league and traded away a possible Top 10 pick.

Why in the world would the Steelers do something like this? Another bad move by Colbert, right? I actually think it’s a brilliant move and I love it. Unlike their neighbors on the North Shore, the Steelers have always prioritized winning.

On paper and even without Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin is coaching a talented roster. Offensively, they have a talented, veteran offensive line along with two emerging stars in JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner. Defensively, with the addition of Fitzpatrick, Keith Butler is now coaching 10 former first round picks (Bush, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Cam Heyward, Joe Haden, Terrell Edmunds, Mark Barron, Artie Burns and Tyson Alualu).

The Steelers don’t operate in the world of rebuilding plans and believe that even without Ben, they’re talented enough to compete for a playoff spot and the division title.

It’s no doubt a risky move but one that I believe is a risk worth taking.

Fitzpatrick is a 22-year-old proven commodity in the NFL. Last year, PPF rated him as the top slot cornerback in the entire NFL. Anyone that’s paid attention to the Steelers for the last five-plus years, knows that their defensive backfield has been a trouble area.

In today’s pass-happy NFL, you need to be strong on the backside and now with Fitzpatrick, Edmunds, Haden and Steven Nelson, the team believes that area can now become a strength.

Former second-round pick Sean Davis is a free agent after the season and with the team’s spotty recent history of drafting defensive backs, the acquisition of Fitzpatrick eliminates the further need of trying to fix that position. Plus, they have his manageable contract for at least the next three seasons.

Maybe the biggest thing this trade does is send a signal to the players in the locker room and in particular Rudolph that the organization believes that all their 2019 goals are still attainable.

After receiving the news that he was the new starting quarterback, Rudolph’s life changed big time. He inherited the pressure of leading one of the highest profile organizations in the NFL. By executing a win-now move like trading for Fitzpatrick, Rudolph can’t help but believe that despite his inexperience, the organization believes they can win now with him under center.

I realize that Rudolph might not be ready and the rest of the roster and Steelers’ coordinators could continue to under-produce but the organization should be commended for going for it.

The window for this veteran group of players is closing and the futures of both head coach Tomlin and Colbert are uncertain.

Will this be a move that haunts the organization for years to come or will it be viewed as brilliant and one that jumpstarted the 2019 Pittsburgh Steelers?

We’ll start to find out this Sunday in San Francisco.

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Saunders: Steelers Leaders’ Show True Ability in Response to Tragedy

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UNITY TWP., Pa. — When a football team goes through any type of struggle, players will naturally look to their leaders for guidance.

That’s particularly the case when the leaders of the team are among the longest-tenured and most-respected around the league at their positions.

But according to the narrative that surrounded the Pittsburgh Steelers over the last nine months, the team’s leaders — most notably quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin — were responsible for the drama and dysfunction that surrounded the team. For many, it was an indictment of their abilities as leaders of men.

We now have overwhelming evidence that narrative was shortsighted, if not completely incorrect. First, Antonio Brown has shown completely and without any shadow of a doubt that he was the cause of most, if not all, of the drama that surrounded him with his continued antics, disruption and legal issues while with the Oakland Raiders.

But more importantly, the Steelers’ leaders were faced with a far more difficult challenge during this year’s training camp than dealing with an acting-out wide receiver. The death of coach Darryl Drake on Sunday hit the team hard, particularly those that were closest to him.

That group certainly included Roethlisberger and Tomlin. Tomlin had known Drake for years before they became coworkers and was visibly upset when talking about his former friend this week.

“Professionally, obviously, the loss is significant, but personally, it’s even bigger,” Tomlin said Those of us that knew and had personal relationships with Coach Drake all feel that way.

“In ’97, I was a young wide receiver coach at Arkansas State. He was viewed as one of the top wide receivers coaches in the college game. I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, or that’s how he’d described it, in being my friend. I was too persistent.

“He extended courtesies to me like he does to a lot of young guys like myself in the profession and that’s why we talked about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport and things went from there.

“Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways, to the men that he worked with, not only now, but over the course of his career, which spanned decades.”

Roethlisberger, similarly, spoke of how deeply he was effected by Drake’s influence.

“I only knew him for a year and a half, but in that year and a half, he meant more to me than some people that I’ve know my whole life,” Roethlisberger said Thursday. “I know he was an amazing football coach, but he was an even better man, better husband, better father and better man of God than he was a football coach. So, what he brought to this team and our relationship together, is truly something that could never be replicated and he will be very dearly missed, but we know that he is with us and we know that he’s in a better place.”

But despite their personal relationships with Drake, and the individual pain they have been going through, Roethlisberger and Tomlin have bought into their role as healers and leaders on the squad. Photographer Ed Thompson caught a glimpse of Roethlisberger consoling JuJu Smith-Schuster in the rain during practice on Tuesday.

He spoke Thursday about the importance of that job.

“Just try to be there,” he said of his role. “Listen. I think that’s sometimes the best that you can do with grief is just to listen. So many times, we get caught trying to talk and telling people that it’ll be OK. But grief isn’t about being OK. It’s about grieving and talking and communicating, so I’m just trying to be a good communicator and listen.”

Tomlin led the team forward, saying “we intend to march” through the grief and pain to continue to fulfill the team’s professional obligations, while also recognizing that the pain needed real, professional healing. Tomlin brought in grief counselors, saying such methods were “not for the weak, but the wise.”

And so it went up and down the veterans of the Steelers’ locker room, from soft-spoken voices of experience like Alejandro Villanueva to the raw emotion of Ryan Switzer, all following the examples laid before them of acknowledging their grief and the importance of open communication and togetherness in times of trouble.

A star wide receiver that wants the ball more and can’t control his own ego? That’s a first-world problem, and an invented problem at that.

The death of a friend, a co-worker, a mentor and an important member of an organization? That’s as real as it gets.

When the Steelers’ leaders were tested with a real issue, they showed their true ability.

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