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.