With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off their bye week and there soon being little to talk about in the interim outside of returning players, now would be as good a time as any to take a look back on what’s transpired this season and give out some mid-year player evaluations.
The team has had a rocky but ultimately successful season to date, coming out of the first eight games with a 6-2 record, tied for the best in the AFC along with the Patriots.
The offense has not lived up to its billing for the most part this year, though the running game has had its moments. Defensively, the sacks have come, and the secondary has improved, but there will always be things to work on.
Player: JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR
It’s time to circle back and cover the slot receiver position that I didn’t get to earlier. Eli Rogers opened the season as the Steelers’ starting slot receiver, but that quickly became rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster by the second game of the season, with Rogers even seeing a couple of weeks on the bench thereafter.
The 20-year-old—though not for long, his birthday is in 12 days—has been an immediate contributor in multiple areas, and even in the last game functioned as the team’s number two receiver when the team benched Martavis Bryant for a game for disciplinary reasons.
And of course that turned out to be his breakout game. He had seven receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown, which included a 40-plus yarder to open the game, a franchise-long 97-yard touchdown, and finally a seven-yard shovel pass that sealed the victory.
The majority of his receptions were third-down conversions, even though he also had a drop on third down. It was his second drop of the season, and he also has five penalties, four of them while carrying out blocking assignments, so there has been some downsides so far to his game.
Smith-Schuster now has four touchdown receptions, which leads the team at the moment. Even Antonio Brown only has three, though he has had two touchdowns called back due to penalties—one of which was on him.
As a blocker, when he is not drawing penalties, he generally has been an asset. He still has work to do, more so in the assignment department rather than execution. There are times when he fails to get to his assignment in time as though he doesn’t realize who quickly it must be carried out. But he has also made some significant blocks, which is why he has been entrusted so much playing time.
Things are, of course, just getting started for the young man, as he looks to have a big second half to his rookie season, perhaps even with some Steelers rookie records in his sights. He figures to have to battle Bryant for opportunities, but, if it actually works out as it should on paper, it will be the best thing for the team.