It's one of Coach Mike Tomlin's favorite and most often repeated catchphrases: "One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity." When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, however, his misfortune might end up being more than one man's opportunity.
"JuJu sustained a shoulder injury (against the Broncos) that will require surgery (Wednesday), and he'll be placed on IR at some point," said Tomlin at his weekly news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "I'm sorry for JuJu. I'm appreciative of him – the spirit that he brings, the effort that he brings, the quality of his play. But that's what makes football the ultimate team game. We'll be calling on a number of people to bridge the gap in the short and the long term in terms of bringing what he provides. When you're talking about losing a guy like JuJu and how he functions within the framework of our offense, usually you're talking about multiple people assuming his role in some form or fashion, particularly in the short term."
Through five games this season, Smith-Schuster had 15 catches for 129 yards (8.6 average) and no touchdowns as a receiver, plus three carries for 9 yards and a touchdown as a runner. It was on one those running plays – a 3-yard gain in the second half against Denver – when his shoulder was injured on a tackle by safety Kareem Jackson.
In terms of replacing Smith-Schuster, Tomlin said, "It's really the same discussion that we were having last week when Cam Sutton missed some work, because of all the things that Cam does, particularly in sub-package football for us on defense. That usually requires a number of people filling the role, because they have other responsibilities on special teams and so forth. And so we'll work at that division of labor and gain an understanding of who does what well, and then position those guys to be positive contributors to our efforts so we get a JuJu like production day from whoever's occupying that space."
When it comes to replacements among the receivers already on the active roster, the Steelers can choose from among Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Cody White.
"However unfortunate the injury is for JuJu," said Tomlin, "it does provide an opportunity for James to expand his role and to do some things that we all know he's capable of doing. It provides an opportunity for Ray-Ray McCloud to expand his role and continue to develop as a receiver and get more opportunities in that space. Ray-Ray carved out a niche for himself as a return man, but that's his day job and he's been working to develop as a receiver and has done a great job of doing so. These opportunities are big opportunities for men like those two. It's also a big opportunity for a guy like Cody White, who has been fighting and scrapping to lay a foundation for what he hopes would be a good career for him. And he's had a window because of lack of availability of others."
Currently on the practice squad are USC rookie Tyler Vaughns (6-foot-2, 184) and Steven Sims, a 5-10, 176-pound second-year pro from Kansas. In college, Vaughns appeared in 43 games for USC during which he caught 222 passes for 2,801 yards (12.6 average) and 20 touchdowns. He signed as an undrafted rookie with Indianapolis following the 2021 NFL Draft, but he was waived at the end of the preseason. Sims appeared in 28 games, including two starts, with the Washington Football Team during which he caught 61 passes for 575 yards (9.4 average) and five touchdowns.
Tomlin also didn't rule out the possibility of looking outside the organization for help at the position.
"We're going to need some depth there, and I'm sure we'll have those discussions," said Tomlin. "Oftentimes, we're looking for the best available professional, as opposed to a guy with a particular skill-set. Those discussions will be had, we'll go through that process, and you guys will know when we come to a decision."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Devin Bush had a groin injury (in the game vs. Denver). He'll be evaluated and his practice availability and the quality of that practice participation will be our guide in terms of his availability (for the game vs. Seattle). And the same thing could be said for guys who have recently missed time but are probably in position to be under strong consideration for play (on Sunday). Cam Sutton (groin), James Washington (groin), and Carlos Davis (knee), all fall into that category. All will be working in some capacity, I imagine, on Wednesday, and then progress hopefully in a positive way toward game time. Guys who have been working, like Zach Banner and Anthony MacFarland, it's good to have them back out there. We're still within that 21-day window on those guys. We'll evaluate the quality of their (practice) and then make a determination on whether they can be positive contributors to our effort (vs. Seattle) if it's appropriate."