Could the Pittsburgh Steelers be without their star rookie, wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, on Sunday? It’s certainly looking quite possible, and we will know more later today. If he does not practice, then he is definitely not going to play. if he is limited, there is still a very good chance he does not.
As head coach Mike Tomlin said during his weekly press conference, playing time for rookies largely hinges upon practice reps, and Smith-Schuster has already missed the vast majority of the practice for this game. It would be surprising if he plays without practicing fully today.
So if the Steelers are indeed without him, what exactly will that mean for the offense, given that he had become a starting wide receiver? During the team’s last game, he played a higher percentage of the team’s snaps than Martavis Bryant did while serving as a starter during the 2015 season, so his absence will certainly be felt.
The simplest solution would be simply to plug Eli Rogers into the slot and leave Bryant and Antonio Brown on the outside, which no doubt will wind up being their primary offensive package on Sunday should the rookie miss the game.
Rogers actually technically started the team’s last game, serving as the third receiver alongside Brown and Smith-Schuster on their opening drive. He also opened the second half in favor of Bryant, though the latter ultimately played roughly twice as many snaps overall by the end of the game.
This could be a nice little opportunity for Rogers to regain some semblance of a foothold on offense, after previously having gone so far as to be deactivated for two games earlier in the year in favor of Justin Hunter when he lost the punt returner job.
It doesn’t help that he had a big drop of a sure touchdown against the Colts two games ago, though as should be noted, Ben Roethlisberger came back to him late in the game in a critical moment, targeting him on third down. He did not catch the ball, but he was held on the play, drawing a penalty.
Though he played a couple dozen snaps against the Titans, he was never targeted over the duration of the contest. If Smith-Schuster is out, I would certainly expect that to change, though he may never play as big a role as he did last year.
Of course, the rookie’s absence would also be a key opportunity for Bryant as well, who has lost a significant amount of playing time, and a sizable number of targets, because of his emergence. While he has frequently failed to make the most of the targets he does receive, perhaps a more consistent involvement in the game would be an asset.
Consider it a potential proof of concept. If Bryant has a strong and impactful game with Smith-Schuster sidelined—assuming he’s sidelined—then perhaps that says something about revisiting his role. Otherwise, it would be hard to justify an expansion.