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Loyalty was the key for JuJu

The question was a basic one, often asked of athletes before a season.

When it was posed to JuJu Smith-Schuster during a zoom interview following Wednesday's OTA session, his answer was short and to the point.

What is the biggest goal for yourself this year?

"Playing more outside," said Smith-Schuster. "Simple as that."

Smith-Schuster wasn't talking about just spending time in the great outdoors, like many have tried to do this year more than ever.

No, he was talking about lining up outside in the Steelers offense, a change from the slot position he has played his first four seasons with the Steelers.

"Being able to play outside, you are adding more to your craft," said Smith-Schuster, who said he can be a security blanket for Roethlisberger no matter where he lines up. "When you look at Year 2, probably the best year I have had as a Pittsburgh Steeler, I played more outside than inside. Having another threat player on the other side with Ben (Roethlisberger). I think we have threat players all the way around.

"I haven't even had a conversation with (offensive coordinator) Matt (Canada) about me playing outside, but through OTAs there's been plays where he has put me outside, put me in the best situation getting the ball outside. It's not just me, that's all of us. Everyone is getting a little bit of a touch, moving around, knowing this offense. I think this offense is going to help us out a lot, being able to open up holes for Najee (Harris), being able to open plays and balls down the field. I really believe in this offense."

Wherever he lines up, Smith-Schuster will be a key component for the Steelers offense this season. He signed a one-year contract to return for the 2021 season, opting to stay 'home' rather than go elsewhere this year.

"For me, it's more so the loyalty, staying with my quarterback that I have been playing with the last four years," said Smith-Schuster. "The fact that he is coming back for one more year and the fact that I can have a one-year deal. The organization knows my body inside and out. I think it's just a loyalty to my coaches, my quarterback.

In his first four seasons in the NFL, Smith-Schuster has played in 58 games, starting 46. He has 308 career receptions for 3,726 yards and 26 touchdowns, bringing energy and explosiveness to the offense.

In 2020, Smith-Schuster had 97 receptions for 831 yards and nine touchdowns.

"I was really excited to get JuJu back," said Roethlisberger during the team's OTAs. "I felt like I was in his ear and in Coach (Mike) Tomlin's ear a lot during that process. To have a familiar face, the guy that brings so much to this team. I don't know if there is a guy in the NFL on third and short to medium that you want the ball in his hands as much as JuJu. What he gives, the passion to this city and team to help us win is awesome.

"As young as he is, he is the leader of that receiver group. That group is a fun group. That is one of the reasons I said I wanted to come back. That is a special group. I am excited to see what they can bring to this offense and this team this year."

The Steelers have a dynamic group of receivers with Smith-Schuster, James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Ray-Ray McCloud coming back.

"We always say we've got the band back together," said Smith-Schuster. "As you see we've got James, Diontae, Chase, me, Ray-Ray, everyone who has put their hands in the pile. On top of that we've got Ben coming back. We have Najee, a great running back, even adding another tight end and with Eric Ebron coming back leading that group. We have some weapons.

"We're going to have to go out there and ball out and be better than we were last year. The chemistry is already there, we just have to make it a stronger chemistry this year."

With Canada's new offense, the chemistry will be huge. Players are still learning aspects of the offense, and Smith-Schuster said he knows they are all buying in just by the questions being asked, even from Roethlisberger.

"(Ben) is always asking questions 24/7," said Smith-Schuster. "He is always asking questions, a guy who has been in the league for 18 years. Me, I have been at it for four years. But for him, to have to learn a whole new offense. I know I have a lot of questions, but he is asking a lot of questions too, even as an adult."