Despite a sour ending to the 2020 season and losing a few starters on both sides of the ball, there's still hope among fans in the Steel City. There has to be, right? The Penguins egregiously lost to the Islanders and the Pirates are sinking faster than the Titanic. Surely, this version of the Pittsburgh Steelers can certainly bring hope back into the fan base.
There's a ton to be excited about. Najee Harris is now the bell cow of the offense. Ben Roethlisberger is another year removed from elbow surgery and has tons to prove. Cam Sutton, who's been excellent in his limited time on the field, steps into a bigger role with Steve Nelson and Mike Hilson gone. Heck, even JuJu Smith-Schuster is back on the team after all but guaranteeing he'd be in another uniform this season.
Thus, leading me to my entire point for this article.
Smith-Schuster is very polarizing. The younger generation loves him because of his famous Tik-Tok dances and video game penchant. It seems that he makes more enemies among the older generation, however. Those that are used to "The Steeler Way" that Smith-Schuster clearly doesn't live up to. Regardless of your feelings for him, Smith-Schuster is back for one more year in Pittsburgh.
That's great. Roethlisberger needs all the weapons he can get. He has a full complement of them this season. The team's success may hinge upon the hopeful improvement of the offensive line.
But one thing this team doesn't need is drama.
Upon the severances of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, the Steelers took out all of the negative. The bad juju, if you will. Now that Smith-Schuster is back, they need to attempt to keep his distractions to a minimum.
This season is going to be an audition for Smith-Schuster. He basically said as much during his media availability this week. He talked about how unprecedented it is for wide receivers to sign long-term deals in Pittsburgh. Smith-Schuster opened about his worth and why he didn't take one-year deals in Kansas City and Baltimore.
My main takeaway and concern, however, came when Smith-Schuster talked about his desire to play outside.
It's clear that slot receivers don't make as much money as outside receivers do. It's just a fact. This season for Smith-Schuster is primarily about auditioning so he can cash in bigger next season when the cap rises back up with fans being allowed back into stadiums with a normal capacity. He is going to want to play outside a lot.
Head coach Mike Tomlin's message to him needs to be clear - you'll play inside, and you'll like it.
This could be Roethlisberger's last season. He deserves to have the best possible lineup on the field with him at all times. The Steelers are at their best when Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson play on the perimeter with JuJu in the slot. Now there is no problem giving Smith-Schuster an occasional shot outside to give others a breather. But he's just better suited in this offense as a slot receiver.
Smith-Schuster's best season did come as an outside receiver. However, he spent that season as the primary beneficiary of Antonio Brown being double-covered on every play. That certainly helped boost those numbers.
Over time, injuries happen and performance could decline from perimeter receivers that will allow Smith-Schuster his chance to boost his stock heading into what he labels a "real free agency" next season.
If fully healthy, Tomlin owes it to his quarterback and the rest of his players to put his foot down. Don't allow Smith-Schuster's antics to overtake the precedent of winning. Force him to earn the chance to play outside and fetch a few extra millions for his bank account next season.
As a fan, enjoy this bonus season of Smith-Schuster. You get an extra game to watch him play in the regular season and, maybe with a little luck, a lengthy playoff run to cheer him on one final time.
Getting his big payday is likely going to outweigh his loyalty to Pittsburgh and that's fine. But that can't be a reason to allow his issues with playing in the slot to be bigger than the team.
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