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How JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Success is Tied to Diontae Johnson

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JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 2019 season was a let down to everyone. His Sophomore season, where he eclipsed over 1400 receiving yards, was long gone by the end of the 2019 season. Smith-Schuster lost quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in week two and then dealt with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges’s up and down play for the remainder of the season. It never helps to have injures either, as Smith-Schuster played with an ailing turf toe injury and sprained MCL throughout different points of the season. All in all, he finished with just 552 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

Smith-Schuster’s season has been the point of debate. Was the effect of losing Antonio Brown that big? Is Smith-Schuster mostly to blame? Were the circumstances surrounding the season the downfall of Smith-Schuster’s play?

The answer is a little bit of everything in all of those. However, if he is to rebound in 2020, his success will not just be tied to his personal play. Instead, budding young star Diontae Johnson, who led rookies in receptions and broken tackles last season, will be a key factor in Smith-Schuster’s success.

Exploring the Impact of Antonio Brown

This is where Antonio Brown comes back into the equation. Brown was a special talent, obviously, and defenses had to take note and respect that talent. However, the reason he was so important and valuable was that he altered how defenses played. The most dangerous receivers in football create lots of separation and burn defenses after the catch. Brown did that on a consistent level with elite route running and elusiveness in the open field.

For example, this play works really well to illustrate what Brown’s impact was. In a 3×1 set, the backside assignment is not usually the focus, especially in a Cover 3 scheme that Atlanta is deploying. What the threat of Brown does is shift that safety over and open the seam right up for Smith-Schuster. Brown created opportunities for other receivers around him, including Smith-Schuster.

In that 2018 season, Smith-Schuster’s absurd production was helped by an elite receiver across from him. He also had his future Hall of Fame quarterback in Roethlisberger. These are just some of the factors that allowed Smith-Schuster to catapult into stardom with that breakout second year.

How Diontae Johnson Fits in the Picture

Now, enter Diontae Johnson. In a world where there is only one Antonio Brown, Johnson may be the closest thing a team can get to Brown without getting the man himself. After an impressive rookie campaign where Brown broke tackles and burnt cornerbacks with crisp routes and high-level functional athleticism, the prospects are looking up for the youngster out of Toledo.

Johnson can act in a similar way to Brown. Not only was part of Brown’s impact the fact that he could win vertically and did, but Johnson proved he could do the same last year. Johnson ran a 2.89 yards per route last year when aligned on the boundary. In 2018, Brown posted a similar 2.91 yards per route when aligned on the boundary. He was getting vertical and had numerous big catches downfield.

Now, what that will do is take the pressure off Smith-Schuster. With teams focusing on the threat of an easy separator in Johnson, it will allow Smith-Schuster to work in one-on-one situations more often. Defenses will ahve to alter their gameplan away from Smith-Schuster and onto Johnson more or get burnt. With his skill set, that should allow Smith-Schuster to potentially thrive.

Can JuJu-Smith-Schuster Bounce Back?

With all that is given above, is Smith-Schuster actually going to rebound?

Well, that is all dependant on a few key events occurring. For one, Roethlisberger, Smith-Schuster, and Johnson must be healthy. Second, Johnson has to take that step to be an even more significant threat than he was last year. That means fighting through contact better and getting rid of fumbles and drops. Lastly, Smith-Schuster himself has to improve. While, yes, there were factors, Smith-Schuster’s five drops were too many.

Still, there is encouraging news with Smith-Schuster. He will move back to the slot for the most part in 2020. That is his comfortable position since he is best working with lots of space and off the line of scrimmage. He has never been a guy to dismantle press coverage with great releases. In addition, the big, physical Smith-Schuster will be allowed to body smaller slot cornerbacks and safeties in mismatches. He is at his bet using his physicality as a weapon and can be the dependable middle of the field target. Over his first two years in the NFL, no one had more receiving yards from the slot than Smith-Schuster.

With the added bonus of a Brown-like force and even another emerging vertical presence in James Washington, the middle of the field could be the honey hole for the Steelers offense in 2020. If that is true and defenses have consistently been worried about getting cooked deep, Smith-Schuster is going to have a field day.

He may not be a top echelon wide receiver one like some thought, but with some help around him, Smith-Schuster can become a dangerous weapon if not held in check. Johnson only helps to ensure that Smith-Schuster may get run free more often in 2020.

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Around the NFL: Ravens Fall to Third Place with Overtime Loss

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Welcome to Around the NFL, where Cale Berger of Steelers Now will recap early-week action and take a look ahead at some of the most important matchups from the Pittsburgh Steelers perspective. 

AROUND THE NFL THIS WEEKEND

Tennessee Titans 30 Baltimore Ravens 24 (OT)

The Ravens have now lost three games on four weeks for the first time since 2018, thanks in large part to a walk-off touchdown by running back Derrick Henry in their overtime loss at home to the Titans on Sunday.

Henry is no stranger to walk-off, game-winning scores. He also recorded a five-yard touchdown in overtime of Week 6, and has become the first player with multiple overtime rushing touchdowns in a single season in NFL history. Henry rushed for 133 yards and the scores, and now owns six 100-yard performances on the season.

Not to be out done, Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown caught four passes for 62 yards and score, on which he would not be denied as his team crawled back from an eleven-point deficit in the second half. Fellow wideout Corey Davis led the way with five receptions for 113.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson was average by his standards, passing for 186 yards with a touchdown and pick, while rushing for just 51 yards on the ground. Even though he failed to win the game for his club in overtime, it was the defense that did Baltimore in, as they were simply unable to stop Tennessee’s explosive offense from amassing 423 yards of total offense, their second-highest total allowed this season. Rookie running back J.K. Dobbins was a bright spot for the Ravens with 70 rushing yards and a score.

Currently outside the playoff picture if the season were to end today, Baltimore will attempt to improve their fortunes when the visit the undefeated Steelers on Thanksgiving night. Tennessee looks ahead to a massive AFC South clash with Indianapolis next Sunday.

Washington 20 Cincinnati Bengals 9

The Bengals lost more than just the football games Sunday, as they will now be without their superstar rookie Joe Burrow for the foreseeable future.

Already off to a tremendous start to his NFL career, Burrow was performing well against the league’s top pass defense when he suffered a gruesome left knee injury in the third quarter. Targeting wide receiver Tyler Boyd on a crucial third down,  Burrow went down immediately after releasing the pass when Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was blocked into his knee. The No. 1 overall pick was carted off the field, and diagnosed with a torn ACL hours later.

Burrow had passed for 203 yards and a touchdown before exiting the game. He entered the weekend having thrown for 2,485 yards, 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He was third in the league with 242 completions, connecting on 65.4% of his passes.

As for Washington, it was once again their young, offensive stars leading them to victory. Rookie running back Antonio Gibson rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown, while second-year wideout Terry McLaurin caught five balls for 84 yards on the afternoon. It was McLaurin’s eight game this season with at least five receptions and over 60 yards. Gibson now has eight rushing scores on the season and five over the last four games.

Cincinnati will now turn to 2019 fourth round selection Ryan Finley when they host the Giants next Sunday. Washington treks to Dallas for a Thanksgiving showdown.

Cleveland Browns 22 Philadelphia Eagles 17

After missing four games with a knee injury, Browns running back Nick Chubb has rushed for over 100 yards in consecutive weeks and led his team to another victory. Chubb racked up 114 yards on the ground, including a 54-yarder. He now has four games eclipsing the century mark this season. The one-time Pro Bowler added this vicious stiff arm for good measure.

Chubb’s return was perfect timing for the Cleveland offense, as their passing game has disappeared over the last four games. Since tossing for a career-high five touchdown passes against Cincinnati in Week 7, quarterback Baker Mayfield has now gone three games without a touchdown pass. Mayfield’s downturn lines up seamlessly with the absence of star wideout Odell Beckham Jr., who suffered a torn ACL in the win over the Bengals. The Browns will need to find a way to replace Beckham’s production and find consistency through the air soon, as they find themselves second in the AFC North standings.

Losing back-to-back games for the third separate time this season, Philadelphia’s issues were all to familiar Sunday, starting and ending with the inconsistent play of quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz threw for 235 yards and two touchdowns, but also tossed a pair of interceptions that proved costly for his Eagles. He now has 18 turnovers on the season. Wentz was also sacked five times Sunday (thrice by defensive end Olivier Vernon), and remains the most sacked quarterback in football at 40.

Cleveland earns a reprieve in another weak opponent next Sunday when they travel to Jacksonville. Philadelphia faces another tough test, as the host Seattle on Monday Night Football.

Indianapolis Colts 34 Green Bay Packers 31 (OT)

In a dual of prolific passers that took overtime to decide, it was quarterback Philip Rivers and the Colts that overcame a 14-point deficit to win their fourth in five games.

Rivers turned back the clock Sunday, completing 24 of 36 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. It was his third game this season with three touchdown passes after having just two all of last year in Los Angeles. Rivers left the game temporarily with a leg injury, but heroically returned to lead the Colts on their game-winning field goal drive,

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers was pretty strong in his own right Sunday, recording his 70th career regular season game with at least three passing touchdowns. Facing a Colts defense that entered Sunday leading the league in total defense and having allowed the second-fewest touchdown passes, Rodgers threw for 311 yards and three scores. He was picked off once by Indianapolis cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.

Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams continued his run of dominance as well in the losing effort, catching seven passes for 106 yards and a scores. Adams is the fourth player in NFL history with at least seven receptions and a touchdown catch in five consecutive games, joining Pro Football Hall of Famer Cris Carter (1999), T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2007) and Adam Thielen (2018).

Although the Packers won the overtime coin toss and looked poised to win the game, it was a massive play by safety Julian Blackmon that turned the tide for the Colts. With Green Bay driving, the rookie out of Utah forced a key fumble on wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling to set the table for Rivers. Already having a great season replacing the injured Malik Hooker, Blackmon’s big play has solidified his candidacy for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The Colts will begin a stretch of three divisional games in four weeks when they host the Titans next weekend. The Packers will look to bounce back versus the Bears on Sunday Night Football.

REST OF THE SCHEDULE

  • Seattle Seahawks 28 Arizona Cardinals 21
  • New Orleans Saints 24 Atlanta Falcons 9
  • Carolina Panthers 20 Detroit Lions 0
  • Pittsburgh Steelers 27 Jacksonville Jaguars 3
  • Houston Texans 27 New England Patriots 20
  • Denver Broncos 20 Miami Dolphins 13
  • Los Angeles Chargers 34 New York Jets 28
  • Dallas Cowboys 31 Minnesota Vikings 28
  • Kansas City Chiefs 35 Las Vegas Raiders 31
  • Los Angeles Rams at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 8:15 p.m., ESPN
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Around the NFL: Bengals’ Joe Burrow Carted Off After Scary Knee Injury

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One of the NFL’s brightest young stars could be missing extended time following a horrific injury Sunday.

Cincinnati quarterback Joe Burrow was carted off the field in the third quarter of the Bengals’ game at Washington on Sunday after taking a brutal hit to his left knee.

Looking for wide receiver Tyler Boyd on a critical third down pass, went down immediately after releasing the pass when Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen fell into his knee.

While the severity of Burrow’s injury was not immediately known, Cincinnati quickly ruled him out for the remainder of today’s game as expected.

Burrow had thrown for 203 yards and a touchdown on the day before exiting the game.

Selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of LSU, Burrow entered Sunday having thrown for 2,485 yards, 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He was third in the league with 242 completions, connecting on 65.4% of his passes.

The Pittsburgh Steelers will visit the Bengals on Monday Night Football on Dec. 21.

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Report: Chiefs Sign G Stefan Wisniewski

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The Chiefs are expected to sign veteran G Stefan Wisniewski to the practice squad, according to Yahoo Sports. It’s possible he will start out there before eventually being promoted to the active roster for the postseason.

This comes only two weeks after Wisniewkski’s Pittsburgh homecoming was cut short after he was released by the Steelers. Wisniewkski, who played at Penn State and Central Catholic, signed with the Steelers in the offseason following winning his second career Super Bowl title in 2019 with the Chiefs. He was also a member of the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles team that followed that regular season with the franchises first Super Bowl championship during the corresponding postseason.

The 31-year-old guard and center was never able to impact the Steelers on the field, the team he grew up rooting for as a kid, because he spent the first 6 weeks of this 2020 season on injured reserve.

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