JuJu Smith-Schuster isn't having his best year. At all.
Through six games, Smith-Schuster's caught 25 passes for 340 yards and two touchdowns for the Steelers. That's just 56.7 yards per game, the lowest of his career, and it pairs with a 65.8 percent catch rate, also the worst in his three seasons as a pro.
Couple that with the fact he fumbled after a late catch in overtime against the Ravens, a mistake that ultimately cost the Steelers the game, and to say it's been a rough go for Smith-Schuster early in 2019 is an understatement.
Fans and fantasy football owners alike are worried about him.
But Randy Fichtner, his offensive coordinator, has no doubt a bounce-back is coming.
“He’s been great. He’s been tough," Fichtner said of Smith-Schuster at the Rooney Complex. "I challenged him a week ago, I told him, I said, ‘Look.’ — he was very disappointed when he put the ball on the ground against Baltimore — and I said, ‘I wouldn’t change that call one time. We want to go to you. We’re going to go to you.’"
Even the fumble, while undoubtedly costly, was an outlier for Smith-Schuster. He's fumbled just twice in his career — but each has potentially cost the Steelers a win. Regarding the most recent gaffe against the Ravens, Fichtner puts little blame on Smith-Schuster.
“That was an unbelievable play by the kid, the defender, I think," he said.
Complicating Smith-Schuster's season are little, nagging injuries that come with life in the NFL. Most recently, he's been hobbled by a toe injury. While that hasn't put him on the sidelines or caused him to miss game action, Fichtner acknowledges the role it could be playing in his down year.
"He’s been hobbled a little bit and fighting through [in-season injury] types of things and, I mean, he didn’t miss a rep last week in practice," Ficthner said. "He came out, he played this game as physical as he could, and I’m just really proud of him.”
Then came the zinger. In case there were any questions about Fichtner's faith in Smith-Schuster or in the Steelers offense as a whole, he put it to rest with this.
"We get the ball to JuJu, then we're all going to be winners."
Smith-Schuster will get his. Fichtner obviously isn't going to throw his guy under the bus, but there's merit to his confidence. Through the rocky start, Smith-Schuster's maintained his composure and kept his attitude in check. There's been no visible "ego" thus far, and I don't expect it to crop up.
Getting Mason Rudolph back from his concussion suffered against the Ravens is a big step for Smith-Schuster's re-emergence. While Devlin Hodges filled in and got his first career start and win against the Chargers in Week 6, the Steelers designed a clearly conservative game plan centered around running backs James Conner and Benny Snell to get it done. Plus, Hodges missed Smith-Schuster early on what would've been a big gain to set the tone for the offense and for No. 19 specifically.
Rudolph, meanwhile, showed progression in his start against the Ravens before being knocked out, and if he continues that development in the team's next game against the Dolphins, I expect Smith-Schuster to be the primary beneficiary. That, combined with the resurgent Steelers running game, will open things up downfield.
Then consider the schedule. The Steelers' next three opponents are:
- Dolphins – allowing 270.2 passing yards per game (26th)
- Colts – allowing 242 passing yards per game (18th)
- Rams – allowing 241.3 passing yards per game (15th)
These aren't exactly elite defenses against the pass, and while the Rams did recently add Jalen Ramsey, Smith-Schuster should have plenty of opportunities ahead. While he may not become the top-10 wideout many expected by year's end, Smith-Schuster will become a more steady contributor in this Steelers offense down the stretch.
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