The offense started to find another gear on Monday night, but wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster got stuck in neutral.
The 15 receiving yards Smith-Schuster accounted for on three receptions in the Steelers' 27-3 victory over the Bengals were the fewest of his career in games in which he’d caught a pass (Smith-Schuster wasn’t targeted in his NFL debut on Sept. 10, 2017 at Cleveland).
But while the Steelers remain committed to getting Smith-Schuster the ball more often, they’re even more determined not to force the ball in Smith-Schuster’s or anyone else’s direction if in-game and/or in-play circumstances dictate otherwise.
“You gotta get the ball to your best players,” quarterback Mason Rudolph emphasized after practice today. “That’s something you look forward to every week in the gameplan but also just an emphasis on my end in-game, but JuJu’s a team player. There are gonna be games like that where maybe they might take him away or other guys have to step up and make plays, and they did on Monday night.”
Rookie wide receiver Diontae Johnson caught a 43-yard touchdown pass against the Bengals.
Johnson had also hauled in a 39-yard scoring strike on Sept. 22 against the 49ers.
In both instances, safeties over-committing to Smith-Schuster contributed to Johnson finding himself wide open.
“That’s part of the thing that comes with being in JuJu’s position,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. “He may attract more attention and that’s why the other guys gotta make their plays and be in position to do that.
“Diontae’s done a nice job the last couple weeks.”
As for Rudolph, “He has to deliver it to the right person who’s open, the right color jerseys,” Fichtner said.
That was Smith-Schuster on a crossing route on third-and-4 in the third quarter at San Francisco. The result was a spectacular, 76-yard, catch-and-run touchdown (65 of the yards came after the catch), by far the Steelers’ longest play of the season.
Smith-Schuster also had a 45-yard hookup with Rudolph on Sept. 15 against Seattle (tied with the 45-yard gain by wide receiver James Washington on a pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on Sept. 8 at New England for the Steelers’ second-biggest play of 2019).
But such home runs have been few and far between.
Smith-Schuster had eight 100-yard receiving games in 2018, including three in the first four weeks.
He has yet to crack triple digits in receiving this season, posting totals of 78, 84 and 81 yards prior to Monday night.
Smith-Schuster’s 1,426 receiving yards last season apparently have not gone unnoticed by opposing defenses.
Another factor was the toe injury Smith-Schuster sustained against Cincinnati.
“JuJu got a little banged up early in that ballgame,” Fichtner said. “He gutted it out and I was really proud of him.”
Rudolph appreciated Smith-Schuster’s response to not onsistently getting the ball.
“That’s the kind of group we have, a very unselfish group that understands if I’m not scoring twice a game I’m still going to be a great teammate and block my butt off and encourage younger guys, and that’s what he did,” Rudolph said.
Smith-Schuster didn’t practice on Wednesday or today, but Fichtner remains optimistic about Smith-Schuster’s availability for Sunday’s hosting of the Ravens.
“I don’t have any feeling like he wouldn’t be back with us,” Fichtner said.
If Smith-Schuster plays, the plan, as always, will be to get him as involved as possible.
“He’s a leader on our team,” Rudolph said. “We’re trying actively, me and us, to get him the ball.
“He’s a great player.”