Other than the fact that they were able to continue winning, if there was a bright spot for the Pittsburgh Steelers to the three weeks that JuJu Smith-Schuster has missed because of a knee injury, then it is the fact that the team has seen some of its less experienced wide receiver stepping up and making big plays for the offense.
First it was James Washington, the second-year wide receiver, who now leads the team in receiving yards. Against the Cincinnati Bengals, he broke out with a big 79-yard go-ahead touchdown in the second half. The following week, he caught four passes for 111 yards and a touchdown with three explosive plays.
Then on Sunday, it was the rookie Diontae Johnson. He may have only finished the game with six catches for 60 yards, but he had a two-yard touchdown and several quality catches. He was a menace in open space, turning a screen pass bottled up behind the line of scrimmage into a 14-yard gain. He also had an impact as a runner, and had an 85-yard punt touchdown.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt” that the ‘younger’ wide receivers stepping up will be a boost when Smith-Schuster returns and will also make it easier on him, said Randy Fichtner, the team’s offensive coordinator, according to a transcript of his conversation with the media yesterday provided by the team’s media department.
“The more plays that get made, and the more consistency we are as a group, then it lessens that load and allows everyone to be a little bit more involved”, he went on. “We go in every week trying to keep everyone involved, but defenses dictate decisions, dictate protections, dictates those kind of things”.
Smith-Schuster hasn’t been nearly as involved as basically anybody thought he would be. Through 10 games, he only has 60 targets in the passing game, more than 100 fewer than what he had a year ago. He has caught 38 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns.
There are a lot of different reasons for the steep decline from his 111-catch, 1426-yard season from a year ago, not the least of which has been the instability and inconsistency at the quarterback position. Health has been another, even before the recent stretch of missed games.
But he can be a game changer at any time whenever he steps on the field. We have seen him do it enough times not to put it past him. He already has a 76-yard touchdown on the season, as a reminder of that fact.
But the last few weeks have shown that the passing game has some complementary weapons, so when he does get back on the field, whether it’s this week or later on, perhaps he won’t get quite as much attention as he might otherwise have.