The Pittsburgh Steelers are off to a disappointing start to the season with a 2-3 record. Ben Roethlisberger came back for likely his final season in the NFL, and the addition of rookie running back Najee Harris was expected to have this offense as one of the best in the league.
Unfortunately, the Steelers team has issues and are sitting in last place in the AFC North. Now, Pittsburgh will be without wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for the remainder of the year after he suffered a shoulder injury against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.
Roethlisberger and Smith-Schuster have developed a strong relationship over the past few years, and the veteran quarterback got emotional when discussing his friend amid the absence of the talented wideout.
Ben Roethlisberger will definitely miss JuJu Smith-Schuster
Despite Smith-Schuster’s slow start to the year, his absence will be a big one on this Steelers team– especially for the starting quarterback. After the injury, Roethlisberger expressed his frustration and sadness (h/t Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“I’ll speak selfishly – I’m hurt because I miss that guy, what he brings to this team, his energy, his excitement, his leadership…It sucks, it really does. I spoke to him on Sunday night and I felt his pain through the phone.”
Ben Roethlisberger after losing JuJu Smith-Schuster for the season
The pair have been together since Smith-Schuster came into the NFL and might have played their final game with one another– albeit not the way either had imagined.
Big Ben decided to come back for another season, and Smith-Schuster flirted with free agency before deciding to sign a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh and compete for a Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the Steelers are far away from a deep playoff run after a rough start to the season, and the loss of a starting wide receiver won’t do them any favors.
The future for the former USC star is in question
The talented wide receiver has seen his numbers decline over the past few seasons. However, that could be attributed to several things. Nonetheless, free agency did not work out too well for him, and he chose the Steelers over other offers, including ones from the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.
On the year, Smith-Schuster had just 15 catches for 129 yards after a 97-catch campaign in 2020 that saw him go for nine scores. Once his contract is up, who knows what kind of market he will have.
In 2018, he was one of the best receivers in the league. Smith-Schuster went for 1426 yards on 111 catches with seven scores but has drifted off since that stellar season. Despite that, he will be just 25 years old at the end of November, and certainly some teams across the league will consider taking a flier on him in hopes of a career resurgence.
It seems highly unlikely that he returns to Pittsburgh next year– especially if Roethlisberger calls it a career. On the other hand, Mike Tomlin spoke highly of Smith-Schuster, so questions remain about his future with the team.
The Steelers have a lot of questions to answer and the loss of Smith-Schuster is just one of them
The struggles in the Steel City are plenty. Tomlin and the coaching staff have many issues to address, and losing the talented receiver at this point is a significant blow. James Washington seems to be the obvious replacement to step in and fill his shoes, and Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson should see even more targets than they already were.
As of late, Harris has become a big part of the offense. The rookie has done the job both on the ground and in the air, and more targets might be headed his way. Furthermore, the offense runs through Roethlisberger, who has just 1286 yards on the year with six touchdowns and four interceptions.
The Pittsburgh offense ranks 27th in yards per game, 21st in passing yards, and 23rd in time of possession, and those numbers need fixing no matter how good of a defense a team might have.
The Steelers have a Sunday night matchup with the Seattle Seahawks before their bye and proceed to face the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears on the other side of their break, so the road does not get any easier.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference