The Steelers Offense Has Something to Prove and the Weapons to Prove It
The injuries the Steelers offense has dealt with this season have been as close to detrimental as a team can get. Losing a Hall of Fame quarterback in Week 2, only to put your season on the line in Los Angeles the week after your second-string quarterback was placed on concussion protocol.
In the middle of all that, Pittsburgh has lost a backup running back and wide receiver. But at 2-4, the Steelers are far from finished, and their offense is doing what it can to keep this season alive.
One player who's seen the effects of losing a top tier play caller is JuJu Smith-Schuster. The third-year receiver is coming off a Pro Bowl year, and has taken over the team's top wideout role. Without Ben Roethlisberger, though, Smith-Schuster has seen both sides of his usual production in the last four weeks.
Smith-Schuster isn't concerned, though. He's been in the league long enough to see his fair share of injuries. Despite the team having to adjust to life without a number of key players, the Steelers receiver knows they're capable of overcoming it.
"Being here in my third year, I've seen so many guys and a lot of starters goes down," Smith-Schuster said. "Throughout the week, they do what they can do be here for the team, but when it comes game day, we're all ready; suited and booted."
Mason Rudolph and Devlin 'Duck' Hodges have filled in for the injured Roethlisberger this season. Rudolph, the team's third-round pick in 2018, is 1-2 as a starting NFL quarterback. Hodges, who just lead the defeat of the Chargers in Week 6, comes from one of the most fascinating journeys of any player in the locker room. Combined, these two have kept their team afloat, and no matter who the Steelers have on the field each Sunday, Smith-Schuster knows this team has a star behind center.
"The sky's the limit," Smith-Schuster answered about his backup QBs. "They can play as long as they want. You've got two young guys that are both hungry, both guys who can play in the game."
Yet, despite the talent surrounding Rudolph and Hodges, Pittsburgh is still fighting from the bottom up. As they enter their bye week, the Steelers will look to rehab players like Jaylen Samuels and James Washington, in hopes their return comes sooner than later.
Moving forward, even with the injuries and only a 2-4 record, the focus remains on what's ahead - not how they got here.
"The past is the past," Smith-Schuster said. "You learn from mistakes, we got to go out in the future. Our bye week, we have to get guys rested up, get guys back for next week, and we have to get ready for Miami."
With 10 games left to play, the season is far from over. Still, the Steelers offense wants to show they're not the weak link of this revived team. With the players they still have and the right game plan, Smith-Schuster knows exactly what this group can do on Sundays.
"There's so much more we can prove," Smith-Schuster said. "Once we get a game where we can play a lot of deep routes, a lot of deep passes; where it's half and half, it's a balanced offense. We have so much out there. We have Duck who can sling it, we have Mason who can throw it, we have so many weapons."
There's no denying the Steelers have an arsenal to provide for their backup quarterback. Despite losing Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell this offseason, the talent at every position continues to be some of the best in the league.
Much of this has to do with their young core of skill players who have stepped up, lead by rookie receiver Diontae Johnson. Johnson, the third-round pick from Toledo, has accumulated 212 yards and 2 touchdowns through six games. Since taking over the starting role in Week 3, the rookie has quickly become one of the offense's more versatile playmakers.
"He's a young JuJu," Smith-Schuster said with a smile. "I've been there, and I'm just doing my best to let him learn the ropes and get his feet wet. He's a smart kid, he knows his plays , he knows what he's doing. He's a playmaker."
The receivers aren't the only ones helping these young quarterbacks. James Conner totaled 119 yards and 2 touchdowns for the Steelers in Week 6. The Steelers dominated the running game, controlling the tempo through Conner and Benny Snell Jr., who combined for 116 rushing yards. A performance that gives this group the option to win from both sides of the offense.
"You can see in this past game, we dominated in the run game," Smith-Schuster said. "I told coach, keep running the ball because it works. Keep giving the ball to our running backs because they're making plays for us."
Looking ahead to the rest of the season, Smith-Schuster and the Steelers are ready for whatever's thrown at them. Dealing with more than most teams at this point, Pittsburgh is prepared for anything, and believe they can overcome whatever obstacles remain ahead of them.
"We've got weapons," Smith-Schuster said. "We've got guys that can move up and make plays. I'm not nervous, I don't doubt anyone on this team."