PITTSBURGH — Last season, Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was targeted 166 times over 16 games. He had 111 receptions and 1,426 receiving yards.
Through eight games this season, Smith-Schuster has only been targeted 51 times and has 33 receptions for 459 yards.
What has caused this drastic drop in production? Is it the loss of Ben Roethlisberger? Or is it the fact that Smith-Schuster is the clear No. 1 option, which might make a young Mason Rudolph not be so eager to force throws into tight coverage?
Despite Smith-Shuster’s quiet start to the season, the Steelers (4-4) can still control their own destiny, to ultimately, get where they want to be at the end of the season.
One assumption that you can eliminate, is that Smith-Shuster doesn’t have the same drive to be great and help his team be successful. He still has the underdog mentality that came into the league with, just two years ago.
“Yeah, I’m a hungry guy,” Smith-Schuster said. “I want to help the team as much as possible. But at the end of the day, if your winning, you can’t really complain about that.”
Smith-Shuster has had three receptions or less in four of Pittsburgh’s first eight games. In 16 games last season, he only recorded one game with three or less catches.
His quarterback (Rudolph) knows that Smith-Schuster can still impact the outcome of a game, even if he isn’t raking in the same receiving numbers as a year ago.
“He’s attracting a lot of flies,” Rudolph said. “He’s attracting the safety and allowing us to get one on one shots down the field with other receivers. When he’s not catching the ball, he understands the type of attention that he attracts and really does a good job with being a selfless player in those situations.”
Rudolph and Smith-Schuster know that the offense has taken a backseat to the Steelers defense this year.
“I would like on our end (the offensive unit), to be able to punch some more of those balls in the end zone,” Rudolph said. “Whether we are moving the ball down the field or working with a short field, due to (the defense’s turnovers). I think we are right there, it’s just a matter of creating some energy for our defense.”
The hungry Smith-Schuster will continue to look for opportunities to up his receiving numbers. The offense as a whole needs to find some continuity before they can start just forcing the ball to Smith-Schuster.
With the team now at .500, and getting a playoff spot becoming a possibility, every practice rep and game rep matters more than ever. Smith-Schuster wants his unit to go into the final stretch with a clear mindset.
“We just got to stay positive,” Smith-Schuster said. “We just have to take it one game at a time, and we are going to get to that level (of where they want to be at the end of the season).”
Alan Saunders and Mike Asti contributed reporting from Pittsburgh.
Steelers Place Samuels, Washington on COVID-19 List, Release 8
Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels and wide receiver James Washington have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team announced Sunday.
This brings the team total to four players on the reserve/COVID-19. Pittsburgh placed defensive backs Justin Layne and Arrion Springs on the list last week.
The team also announced the release of eight players on Sunday. Quarterback J.T. Barrett, running back Ralph Webb, returner Quadree Henderson, offensive lineman Christian Montano, long snapper Christian Kuntz, defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, safety Tyree Kinnel and defensive end Josiah Coatney were all waived. Henderson and Hendrix were former standouts at Pitt, while Kuntz played his college ball at Duquesne.
The reserve/COVID-19 designation was created for players who have either tested positive for the virus, or have been in close contact with an infected individual. Players can be removed from the list once they have been medically cleared. There is no limit to the amount of players a club can place on the list.
A second-round pick in 2018 out of Oklahoma State, Washington is coming off a productive sophomore season that saw him catch 44 passes for 735 yards and three touchdowns. He played in 15 games last year, starting ten.
Selected in the fifth round of the same draft out of NC State, Samuels has turned into a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield, snagging 47 receptions for 305 yards and a score in 2019. He also carried the ball 66 times for 175 yards and a touchdown.
While they are not the first Steelers to receive the designation, Samuels and Washington are definitely more crucial to the team’s immediate plans than Layne and Springs. Getting them healthy and back on the field will be paramount, as the Steelers look to improve on their disastrous offensive output from a year ago with the return of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
Steelers, Heyward Have Made Little Progress Towards Extension, Per Agent
The Pittsburgh Steelers and defensive end Cam Heyward are no closer to agreeing to a long-term contract extension, according to the star’s agent.
Speaking with ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Heyward’s agent Michael Perrett of Element Sports Group divulged that the team and his client have made no significant advances towards a new deal.
Perrett reaffirmed that Heyward still wants to retire as a Steeler, but acknowledged that COVID-19 has made the path to an agreement more challenging.
“I thought we’d be further along in the process. In a normal year, we might be,” he told ESPN. “The current situation has led to a lot of uncertainty, but NFL business is still moving forward. Cam would love to retire a Steeler, but at this point, he just doesn’t know how all of this is going to play out.”
According to Fowler, Heyward is not considering holding out, mainly because of his position in the team as a captain and player rep.
Heyward, 31, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in 2019. With nine sacks, eleven tackles-for-loss and 23 quarterback hits, Heyward earned Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors a year ago. His 79 tackles-for-loss are the fourth-most in franchise history.
While other high-profile pass rushers have signed new deals this offseason, including the Chiefs’ Chris Jones, the Browns’ Myles Garrett and the Chargers’ Joey Bosa, Heyward still waits.
Even though the Steelers tend to avoid in-season contract negotiations and little progress has been made thus far, the two sides still have the month of August to work out a deal.
Still, if they are not able to get something prior to the season opener, you would think the organization would make an exception for Heyward, considering his desirable combination of leadership and ability.
He has remained consistent that he wants to retire in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would be wise to make his wish a reality.
Mike Tomlin on Rookie Development Under COVID Restrictions
Steelers HC Mike Tomlin made no excuses while explaining the difficulty in developing rookies under the COVID guidelines.