Kevin Gorman: JuJu vs. Jalen a marquee matchup that must live up to billing
JuJu Smith-Schuster has dealt with the difficulty of trying to catch passes while drawing double teams, so the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver welcomes his next challenge.
When the Los Angeles Rams visit the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field, Smith-Schuster expects two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Jalen Ramsey to be covering him.
Which does JuJu prefer? That’s a no-brainer.
“Double-teamed is difficult, obviously, because you’ve got a guy inside and out,” Smith-Schuster said, “but also going one-on-one, when you’re going against an elite corner, you want to respect it. You want to respect his game and his craft.”
Smith-Schuster will be shooting for single coverage and a chance to earn the respect of Ramsey. Theirs promises to be a marquee matchup — even if neither one has quite lived up to the hype this season — and Smith-Schuster knows a strong performance against a shutdown corner would give credence to his status as a No. 1 receiver.
And that’s why he’s looking forward to it.
“Man, it’s awesome,” Smith-Schuster said. “Last time I went up against him, he didn’t really talk much, just kind of respected the game, and we played ball. He’s a great player. To have the option to go against him, it sharpens my craft and his craft. It’ll be fun.”
After trading Antonio Brown, the Steelers were counting heavily on Smith-Schuster to evolve into their top target after a Pro Bowl second season. He’s been a disappointment in that regard, posting pedestrian numbers so far this season. Where Smith-Schuster has 33 receptions for 459 yards and three touchdowns and only one 100-yard game (103 against Miami) in the first eight games this season, he had 53 catches for 672 yards and two touchdowns with four 100-yard games through the first eight games last season.
But Rams coach Sean McVay agreed with Mike Tomlin’s assessment that Smith-Schuster’s impact can’t be measured by his statistics alone, especially when he’s catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges instead of benefiting from throws from a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger.
“I think he is one of the better receivers in this league,” McVay said of Smith-Schuster. “In a lot of instances, he dictates and determines some of the coverage rotations or he’s got some of the best corners on opposing teams traveling with him. He can make plays down the field, he’s great after the catch, he’s physical and can catch contested balls. I think what he’s done early on in his career speaks for itself.”
But Smith-Schuster also has made some major mistakes. He had a costly late fourth-quarter fumble in the loss to Baltimore. And a pass that tipped off his hands led to an interception Sunday against Indianapolis, when he was only targeted five times and finished with three catches for 16 yards.
Perhaps going against Ramsey will bring out the best in Smith-Schuster, whose confidence remains high enough he said this about catching more passes: “You’ve just got to throw the ball my way.” He had eight catches for 104 yards against Jacksonville last November, when Ramsey still played for the Jaguars. Then again, Ramsey had one of his best performances, with a pair of interceptions, including one in the end zone.
It’s also possible Ramsey will shut down Smith-Schuster, which is why the Rams were willing to part with two first-round picks and a fourth-rounder to acquire him even though he hasn’t been as dominant this season. Ramsey has allowed 26 catches for 350 yards and two touchdowns and was beaten on a 52-yard pass to Alex Erickson against the winless Cincinnati Bengals.
But Ramsey’s reputation as a lockdown defender is well-earned. He ranked fourth-lowest in completion percentage allowed as nearest defender since his rookie season in 2016, according to NFL NextGen statistics, and had the fourth-most pass breakups in the NFL from 2016-18.
No wonder Tomlin didn’t hesitate to call Ramsey “the top corner in the game,” and raved about his ability “to shut down a portion of the field or eliminate a receiver.”
Nor is it surprising McVay echoed those sentiments.
“This guy’s got a great feel for the game,” McVay said. “That was one of those things that was (evident) as soon as he got in the building. He understands coverage concepts. He understands football from a big-picture standpoint, so you’re not exclusive in any way that you can utilize his skill set. He’s tough. He’s physical. He can match up with guys, but he’s also got great ball skills.”
If that sounds like a perfect matchup, you have to hope it can do something neither Ramsey nor Smith-Schuster has done this season: live up to the billing.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .