PITTSBURGH — Asking how wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster will evolve in Year 3 is straightforward enough for Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
But the final three words of that question — “with AB gone” — affected the answer.
“I don’t base that on whether [Antonio Brown] is here or not,” Tomlin said last week from the NFL owners meetings. “I just want to see him grow and mature as a player, as a person. He’s done a good job of that between Year 1 and Year 2.”
Smith-Schuster is his own man now, and that’s exactly how the Steelers want it.
What has become clear is the Steelers don’t want Smith-Schuster focused on replacing Antonio Brown, who was traded to the Oakland Raiders, but rather on maximizing his own enormous potential independent of his NFL receiver peers. A good start is reaffirming his alignment with his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in a supportive social media post.
Despite a team MVP award and a team-leading 111 catches for 1,426 yards last season, Smith-Schuster won’t get the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver label, at least not on paper. That’s because the Steelers’ offense is mostly an equal-opportunity attack. Brown might have garnered 680 targets over the previous four seasons, but he also got open more than everybody else. And the open man wins.
“We don’t live in that two-to-one world. Those are things that you guys describe,” Tomlin said of the Steelers not having a designated first or second option. “I don’t know that when Ben is dropping back to find someone open he has that mentality. He’s just looking for someone who’s open within the confines of a concept. So I know what you mean in terms of the attention that he might get from opposing teams, but it’s our job to balance those things out, and I’m sure he’s excited about meeting the challenge and the responsibility that comes with the attention.”
Roethlisberger has no problem spreading the ball around. Five Steelers got at least 63 targets in 2017, while four players got at least 71 targets last season. The running back, tight end and top two receivers will have chances to put up substantial numbers in the Steelers’ offense.
But the Steelers will look to Smith-Schuster as a third-down-buster to enhance his historic early-career arc. Smith-Schuster joins Isaac Bruce and Larry Fitzgerald as the only NFL receivers with 100 catches and 1,400 yards in their second seasons.
Tomlin saw a better-conditioned, more consistent player who was “ready for the fight” in Year 2.
Year 3 is all about All-Pro growth.
“He went into the offseason healthy, so that’s a good thing,” Tomlin said. “And I think that’s a recipe for him continuing to move along that path. I think we have that same desire for all our guys. We talk continually and openly about the growth and development of guys from Year 1 to Year 2. JuJu made a significant step. James Conner made a significant step. T.J. Watt made a significant step.
“It’s reasonable to additionally talk about those guys becoming perennial all-star contributors. I think that’s a realistic discussion. I know that those are some of the ways that we intend to challenge those guys.”
As the (unofficial) No. 1, Smith-Schuster will get every chance to meet those challenges.