Kevin Gorman: JuJu Smith-Schuster wants to show Steelers he’s ready to go deep
A breakout season saw JuJu Smith-Schuster rank among the NFL leaders in receptions and yards. A tumultuous offseason saw him ascend to a role as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ top target.
What Smith-Schuster wants to evolve into this season is a different player, one who adds dangerous deep threat to his resume by providing splash plays for the Steelers.
“Being able to catch the deep balls down the field, those go balls, those free balls that they send down the field where I’ve got to go make those plays,” Smith-Schuster said. “That’s what I’ve focused on a lot, catching the ball over the shoulder and being able to be a threat on the outside.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. It’s the same reaction Ben Roethlisberger had when I relayed Smith-Schuster’s personal goal: Doesn’t JuJu have two 97-yard touchdowns?
Yes, but those were catch-and-run plays where Smith-Schuster turned short passes into length-of-the-field gains. Now, he wants to be a bona fide deep threat, a receiver who stretches the field. And that caused Big Ben to sit back in his chair and smile.
“That just shows the growth of what he wants and desires to be,” Roethlisberger said. “I think that’s awesome. If you asked him the question, ‘What do you want to improve on?’ And he says, ‘Nothing, I’m good.’ That’s when you have issues, right?”
Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 111 receptions for 1,426 yards and five catches of 40 yards or longer, ranking in the top six in the league in all three categories. But he won’t be playing opposite four-time All-Pro Antonio Brown anymore, so Smith-Schuster has plenty of motivation to prove himself.
That’s why he was all business in training camp, from his sneaking in with a side-door arrival to spending extra time catching passes from the JUGS machine every practice.
“It was very important,” Smith-Schuster said. “Obviously, it was all eyes on me. The biggest questions: How are the Steelers going to be without two great players that we used to have? How is JuJu going to do without AB?”
That’s the $30 million question — or the guaranteed money the Oakland Raiders gave Brown — and one Smith-Schuster wants to answer this season before he enters the final year of his rookie contract. Another Pro Bowl-caliber season and he’ll be in line to demand a mega deal of his own.
Roethlisberger believes something else is at play, the stigma Smith-Schuster lacks the speed to get behind cornerbacks. Smith-Schuster slipped to the second round out of Southern Cal because of his 4.54-second time in the 40-yard dash and a scouting report that said he “rarely shows a second gear to run under the deep throws.”
That’s where Big Ben got defensive.
“I’ve never not targeted him or looked at him or thrown him a long ball because it was him,” Roethlisberger said. “He never had to prove anything to me. I think he can do anything we ask him to do. We ask him to do more than anybody else. We ask him to play slot, back-side single, front-side to the trips. He’s a very well-rounded receiver.”
Is becoming a dangerous deep threat the final piece of the puzzle for Smith-Schuster, the so-called missing ingredient to make him a definitive No. 1 receiver in the NFL?
Big Ben thinks it’s quite the opposite.
“I would actually contradict that a little bit,” Roethlisberger said. “I think a lot of Nos. 1s are one-spot guys. … You can move guys around by formations but to literally play a different position — he plays X, F, Z — JuJu can do it all and he’s uniquely different in that sense because he can do kind of everything.
“That’s different than a lot of No. 1s, truthfully.”
All eyes will be on JuJu, especially when he goes deep.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .