The waiting, as Tom Petty once wailed, is the hardest part.
And it will be for the Steelers this week as that's all they can do in regard to the health of wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson.
Both receivers suffered concussions in last Thursday night's 21-7 loss at Cleveland against the Browns, leaving the Steelers with just three healthy receivers for the final quarter and a half of the game.
Smith-Schuster, the team's leading receiver, suffered a concussion in the second quarter when he was sandwiched between safety Morgan Burnett and corner Greedy Williams, with Williams making helmet-to-helmet contact on the play, which was not penalized. Smith-Schuster also suffered a knee injury of some sort on the play. He was seen at the team facility Monday wearing a knee brace.
Johnson, the team's third-leading receiver behind Smith-Schuster and running back Jaylen Samuels, was knocked out of the game in the third quarter on a clear helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Damarious Randall. Randall was ejected from the game following the play, which left Johnson bleeding from his ear.
"With JuJu and Diontae going out, it was a big loss for us," Samuels told me. "We had three total (receivers). It was tough."
The Steelers on Saturday signed receiver Deon Cain from the practice squad of the Colts. A sixth-round pick of the Colts in 2018, Cain had started three games for Indianapolis this season, appearing in seven games.
But he fell out of favor with the Colts after catching just four of his 14 targets for 52 yards.
That would still make him the Steelers' second-most productive receiver this season if both Smith-Schuster and Johnson cannot play this weekend against the Bengals in Cincinnati.
Given that the status of both Smith-Schuster and Johnson could push late into the week before they could potentially be cleared through concussion protocol, the Steelers (5-5) have to prepare to face the Bengals (0-10) as if they won't have either available.
"Hopefully, they can get back to us as soon as possible," running back Jaylen Samuels said. "They’re major contributors to our offense and our team. If they can get back out there, that would be phenomenal. If they can’t, it will be next man up. Whoever is up has got to step into some big shoes and make some plays. I believe in everybody on this team. We’ve got to find a way."
James Washington has 23 receptions for 369 yards and one touchdown this season, while Johnny Holton has one catch for 18 yards on 13 targets. Tevin Jones, signed from the Steelers' practice squad last Thursday when Ryan Switzer was placed on injured reserve, played in his first NFL game against the Browns, catching two passes for 24 yards on four targets.
Also complicating matters is the fact James Conner, the team's leading rusher, aggravated a shoulder injury against the Browns that forced him out of the game in the first quarter. Conner was returning from a two-game absence.
Rookie Benny Snell is closing in on a return after missing the past four games with a knee injury and could be back this week. That would help take some of the pressure off Samuels, who was obviously a main focus of the Browns defense last week after Conner, Smith-Schuster and Johnson left the game.
Cain believes he can be a factor.
Cain averaged 15.7 yards per catch in three seasons at Clemson, then ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2018. His rookie season was wrecked by a torn ACL suffered in training camp, but he feels he's all the way back from that issue and can help the Steelers, one week after the Colts moved him to the practice squad to make room for Devin Funchess' return from Injured Reserve.
The Steelers quickly signed him after losing both Johnson and Smith-Schuster.
"I didn’t expect they would be calling that fast. Once I watched the game and saw the way things went down, I saw that they did need a bit of help," Cain said. "I’m glad they called me to get the job done."
What can he bring to the offense?
"Vertical speed, touchdowns, big plays," said Cain, who led the Colts with 12 preseason receptions for 169 yards and a touchdown. "I just want to find my way onto the field. I haven’t even been in practice yet. Once I get on the field, they’ll get a good feel for me. I’m excited. I’m very excited for this opportunity."
This one is going to play out over the course of the week. Unlike Conner's shoulder issue or other injury, there is nothing the Steelers can do to expedite the process of Smith-Schuster and Johnson getting through concussion protocol. Things just have to run their course.
And even if one or both practice during the week, it doesn't mean they'll be cleared to return to action by the independent neurologist. Practicing and physical activity are part of the concussion protocol return process.
So they'll just have to wait it out and get Cain ready to go.
To continue reading, log into your account: