When Antonio Brown was traded, JuJu Smith-Schuster was quick to respond to the call for Pittsburgh Steelers fans. JuJu Smith-Schuster told fans nothing more than that he is ready. Ready to take on the duties of the best receiver on a team that once had the best wide receiver in the league. Of course, the challenge has not been something new for JuJu Smith-Schuster, who was has climbed rung-by-rung to the top of the Steelers wide receiver totem pole.
Remember when he was drafted and Martavis Bryant reminded us all that he was Sammie Coates replacements, and not his? Well, the first part was correct, he was Sammie Coates replacement, and while Coates laughed it off at the moment, the team traded him that offseason.
When JuJu Smith-Schuster entered camp as a rookie there were legitimate questions as to who would win a camp battle between him and Eli Rogers.
Smith-Schuster dealt with a knee injury late into the preseason and barely contributed in the first two weeks. Still, by Week Four of his rookie season, he not only got full reign over Rogers, but there were also legitimate questions as to whether or not JuJu Smith-Schuster had replaced Martavis Bryant as the Steelers second wide receiver.
Smith-Schuster slowly took over that job in the next three weeks and by week eight of his rookie season, Martavis Bryant was suspended for calling out Smith-Schuster on Instagram because the rookie was outproducing him over a six-week span.
For Bryant, it was a chance to prove that he was a needed piece of the offense. His deep presence across from Antonio Brown took all the coverage away from Smith-Schuster, right? Who could take the top off when all the coverage moves to Brown? Then Smith-Schuster took the top off himself with the longest completion of Ben Roethlisberger’s career-a 97-yard game-changing touchdown.
By the end of his rookie season, Smith-Schuster had gone from a hopeful candidate to replace Sammie Coates and a potential Eli Rogers upgrade to a full-fledged upgrade from Martavis Bryant. Nobody saw that coming.
That is a significant leap for a rookie who just turned 21 years old. A step back in his sophomore year with Bryant being completely replaced by rookie James Washington had to be expected, right? Nope, instead JuJu Smith-Schuster kept climbing.
In 2018 Smith-Schuster caught 111 passes for 1,426 yards. Antonio Brown caught 104 passes for 1,297 yards.
Just like in 2017 when many said that Martavis Bryant was opening up the chance to get stats for Smith-Schuster, the same are proclaiming that Smith-Schuster only saw his meteoric rise in 2018 because of Antonio Brown and the attention he took. Heck, those same people were questioning if he could outproduce Eli Rogers as a rookie.
They were fair questions at the time and look silly in retrospect. At what point does it become apparent Smith-Schuster is progressing at an extreme rate and it has his peers scrambling? Are we going to ask the same questions about him replacing Brown that we asked about him replacing Bryant? Rogers? Coates?
JuJu Smith-Schuster passed Sammie Coates before training camp of his rookie season. Eli Rogers was not far behind. He passed Martavis Bryant by Week Four of that year. He even outproduced Antonio Brown by his second year in the NFL. Now, he is 22 years old and has the keys to the car.
Will it be tougher without Antonio Brown? Undoubtedly. Are you really not expecting JuJu Smith-Schuster live up to expectations and exceed them? If he did not it would be a first.
Around the NFL: Championship Game Sunday Features four Star QBs
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Green Bay Packers, 3:05 p.m., WPGH-TV
It will be a Battle of the Bays in the early slot Sunday, as Tom Brady and the Buccaneers visit Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Tampa and their athletic defense got the better of Green Bay back in Week 6, winning handedly 38-10 and holding Rodgers to his worst performance of the season.
The Bucs’ relentless pass rush had Rodgers under constant duress, sacking to probable MVP four times and picking him off twice. Rodgers was also held without a touchdown pass for the only time in 2020.
As for Brady and the Bucs, he tossed for 166 yards and two touchdowns of his own. Tampa Bay running back Ronald Jones II had 113 yards and two scores on the ground.
Playing the best football of his career since that loss to Tampa Bay, Rodgers will assuredly be looking to avenge his poor performance back in October to reach his second Super Bowl. He carved up a stout Los Angeles Rams defense for 296 yards and three total touchdowns a week ago, and has tossed one interception over his last 210 pass attempts.
He will try to keep that unblemished streak alive against a Buccaneers defense that picked off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees three times a week ago.
Tampa’s Tom Brady can reach his tenth Super Bowl with a win over the Packers. No stranger to performing in the elements, Brady will look to carve up the improving Green Bay defense with his patented surgical precision.
Buffalo Bills at Kansas City Chiefs, 6:40 p.m., KDKA-TV
While two legends are squaring off in the NFC, a pair of rising stars will go toe-to-toe in the AFC Championship game, as Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs welcome Josh Allen and the Bills.
Cleared from concussion protocol after leaving last week’s win over the Cleveland Browns, Mahomes is still battling a toe injury that could hamper his signature mobility. Luckily for Kansas City, Buffalo is 22nd in the league in pressure rate.
Even without his scrambling, Mahomes is still a threat from the pocket, coming off a season where he threw 38 touchdowns and just six interceptions.
The Chiefs offense will get a boost to take the heat off Mahomes on Sunday night as well, with rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire set to make his return from injury.
Turning to the Bills, they are here behind an MVP-caliber season from Allen, who has made tremendous strides in his third season. His 45 total touchdowns this year are the most ever by a Buffalo quarterback, while he improved his completion percentage by 10.4 percentage points, now at 69.2%.
Allen has protected the football well this season with just ten interceptions, but he will have to be extra cautious opposing the safety Tyrann Mathieu and the Chiefs defense. The “Honey Badger” has five interceptions in his last six games.
Kansas City is looking reach their second-straight Super Bowl, while Buffalo is pursuing their first appearance since 1993.
Baltimore Ravens Sign WR Deon Cain to Reserve/Future Contract
The Baltimore Ravens have signed former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract, the club announced Friday.
We have signed WR Deon Cain to a Reserve/Future contract.
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) January 22, 2021
Cain spent the last two seasons with Pittsburgh, spending the majority of the 2020 season on the practice squad. He appeared into two games this past season, including the season finale loss to the Cleveland Browns, but recorded no stats.
Cain saw more extended action in 2019, where he appeared in six games and made three starts. He tallied five receptions for 72 yards a season ago.
A star for the Clemson Tigers, Cain was selected in the sixth round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Indianapolis Colts. He caught 130 passes for 2,040 yards and 20 touchdowns during his Clemson career.
Washington’s Alex Smith Beats Ben Roethlisberger for PFWA Comeback Player of the Year
Washington quarterback Alex Smith has been named the NFL Comeback Player of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, edging out Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
After suffering a significant leg injury in 2018 and subsequent infection that nearly took his limb, Smith made his unlikely return to the field in 2020, leading Washington to a division title and playoff appearance.
Smith passed for 1,582 yards and six touchdowns with eight interceptions, but led Washington to a 5-1 record in his six starts. He is the first Washington player to win the award since its inception in 1992.
Roethlisberger was also believed to be a worthy candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, leading the Steelers to a 12-4 campaign and AFC North title after missing the majority of 2019 with a season-ending elbow injury. The 38-year-old threw for 3,803 yards and 33 touchdowns with ten interceptions.
Running back Jerome Bettis (1997) and quarterback Tommy Maddox (2003) are the only two Steelers to have previously been awarded Comeback Player of the Year.
Smith was not the only quarterback recognized by the PFWA on Friday, as Buffalo’s Josh Allen was awarded Most Improved Player of the Year.
Allen made a remarkable jump in 2020, passing for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns with ten interceptions. He also accounted for eight scores on the ground.
Not only were his 37 touchdowns seven more than in his first two seasons combined, but Allen also completed a career-high 69.2% of his passes, a ten percentage-point increase from a season ago.
Allen will have another opportunity to demonstrate his jump in play Sunday when the Bills visit the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC Championship game.
Two Steelers have previously been named the league’s Most Improved Player, quarterback Kordell Stewart in 2002 and running back Le’Veon Bell in2015.