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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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Saunders: T.J. Watt Not among Long List of Steelers’ Issues this Offseason

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Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, unhappy with the way the 2020 season ended, chose not attend his exit interview with the team, according to a report on Monday by WXDX-FM host Mark Madden.

Watt denied the report, saying that he had in fact met with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator and de-facto outside linebackers coach Keith Butler before leaving the city at the close of the season.

Let’s make no mistake, the Steelers have a lot of problems this offseason.

• They chose not to retain three coaches and another retired. The general manager, head coach and defensive coordinator are all working on year-to-year contracts.

• Tight end Vance McDonald has already retired. Center Maurkice Pouncey looks like he’s leaning that way.

• Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t made his decision public yet, but he’ll either retire or return and contribute to a salary cap crunch that already has the team operating way in the red.

• And that’s before any of the Steelers’ 19 free agents gets a chance to re-sign. 

All told, at least a half-dozen starters are unlikely to return along with several key rotational players. 

Regardless of whether he did or didn’t attend his exit meeting with the team last week, T.J. Watt is not one of those problems.

The all-everything linebacker was the best player on one of the best defenses in the league all season, is scheduled to return for his fifth season in black and gold in 2021 and is the player most likely to be offered a long-term extension by the club between now and then.

Even despite the loss of cohort Bud Dupree and sitting out a meaningless finale in Cleveland, Watt led the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits, he was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. He remains the odds-on favorite to become the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Watt is coming back, he’s still going to be really, really good, and nothing said or not said in an interview would have changed that.

The rest of the team? 

Who knows.

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Saunders: Steelers’ ‘Standard’ Makes for Tough Evaluations

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PITTSBURGH — “The standard is the standard.”

Of all of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s unique sayings, that might be the most ubiquitous.

It’s also the one that’s just as much about the place that Tomlin coaches than it is about his particular style.

In Pittsburgh, the standard is the Super Bowl. That’s a standard that was set long before Tomlin arrived in the Steel City and will likely remain long after he’s gone. 

When you’re the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies, anything short of adding to that case is a disappointment.

On Sunday, the Steelers suffered that disappointment, in somewhat spectacular fashion, giving up four first-quarter touchdowns to before dragging their way back to a respectable final score in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

That is, respectable anywhere else. Not in Pittsburgh, where first-round playoff losses, even on the heels of 12-4 regular seasons, draw ire and not adulation.

While that standard is a well-earned one when it comes to the level of play that the football team has shown it is capable of achieving, it’s not a particularly good one when it comes to evaluating the participants.

On Sunday, the Steelers’ first play of scrimmage saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball 20 yards over the head of his quarterback and into his own end zone for seven Cleveland points. If it wasn’t so horrifying to watch for the Steelers faithful, it would have been hilarious. You couldn’t even make such an absurd way to start the game.

As the game went on, and the Steelers defense faltered time and again on the way to giving up 48 points on the day, it was undrafted rookie corner James Pierre and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, freshly plucked from Indy’s practice squad, playing big roles, as injuries and COVID-19 conspired to leave the once-ridiculously strong defense a feeble parody of its former self.

Those aren’t excuses. Every team has dumb and weird things happen. Every team has injuries and absences. Truly great ones find a way to overcome those things in the big picture.

On the small scale, though, that’s more than enough to cost a team one game. And in the playoffs, you don’t get a mulligan. So while the focus on this season-ending Monday is rightfully on the team’s 0-1 playoff record, the 12-4 regular season probably provides a better picture of how good and how successful this truly team was.

One-game playoffs are by their nature very random events. It doesn’t take a lot for a good team to be beat a great one or a mediocre team to beat a good one.

“You know, it’s always a cumulative body of work,” Tomlin said. “One performance can put an exclamation point on decision making and things. We also assess the cumulative.”

So when Tomlin was asked after the game how he should be held accountable for failing to win a playoff game in his second straight postseason appearance, he leaned on another one of his pet sayings.



“It is what it is,” Tomlin said. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”

The record is what it is. The Steelers had a wildly successful first three-quarters of the season, stumbled down the stretch, and face-planted in the postseason. That means that in Pittsburgh, the team failed to meet the standard for success, and that has many talking about Tomlin’s future.

Fortunately for Tomlin, the Rooney Family also seems to have a pretty keen understanding about the volatile math of the playoffs. After all, grading every season on a Super Bowl or bust, pass-fail grading scale, would involve a lot of failing grades. But the Steelers have had more stable leadership than any other NFL team, with just three coaches going back to the 1960s.

Chuck Noll went four years without winning a playoff game twice, once from 1980-83, going 0-2 and didn’t make the playoffs at all from 1985-88. Bill Cowher missed the postseason three straight years from 1998-2000. Tomlin is on his second such four-year span, going 0-2 from 2011-14 and now 0-2 from 2017-20. That’s a lot of failing, and a lot of guys that kept right on with their jobs.

The standard may be the standard in the fans’ eyes, but it’s clear that in the evaluation of coaches, the Rooney family has other methods. Perhaps Tomlin has failed in some of those areas, as well. His strategy on Sunday was questionable in many facets and in-game management has never been a strength. The way the game started, with a 28-point deficit and the fact that it came at the hands of the Browns likely did Tomlin no favors.

“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that. That’s football and that’s life.”

There are many questions about what the Steelers team will look like after an offseason that is sure to be full of turmoil and turn over. It’s possible that may include change at the head coach position, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it will not. It’s hard to argue with what has led the Rooneys and Steelers to so much success. It’s part of why the standard is the standard.

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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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