From Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes to Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, the Pittsburgh Steelers have a long history of drafting and developing some of the NFL’s most-talented wide receivers.
But the Steelers, who are known for their loyalty to their head coaches and just inked Mike Tomlin to an extension this offseason, also aren’t afraid to cut bait at the position: before this year, they had signed just two wideouts, Ward and Brown, to second contracts with the organization in the modern era. In March, 24-year-old fan favorite JuJu Smith-Schuster became the third.
The top target of 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during the 2020 season, Smith-Schuster signed a one-year deal with the Steelers to return to Pittsburgh for the 2021 season. Though Smith-Schuster said in March that the $8 million deal was the third-lowest offer he received in free agency, the veteran receiver, who has 308 receptions for 3,726 yards and 26 touchdowns in 58 games spread across four NFL seasons, feels he has unfinished business in the Steel City and wants to be part of what is likely Roethlisberger’s final season playing pro football.
“Being able to play with Ben again for one more year … I believe right now on paper it is his last one. I think it is,” Smith-Schuster, who is known for appearing on TikTok, Twitch and just helped Charmin unveil its new AI digital doppelganger BRB Bot, tells InsideHook. “He’s done so much for me over the past four years. I had an opportunity to go to two different teams with two young quarterbacks who have tremendous careers ahead of them. But as far as Ben, this year is special because it’ll be his last. He had a tremendous career for 15-plus years and it would be great to go out with a W.”
Smith-Schuster says the prospect of sending Big Ben off with a big win in the final game of the season is giving him extra incentive to take advantage of the limited time they have left together.
“In my time playing football, I’ve had some good quarterbacks over the years, but I think Ben is by far the best one,” he says. “You don’t get those opportunities for very long. He was telling me I have 17 games with him during the regular season. It goes fast. So for me, it’s definitely motivation to play my heart out for him and the team. Every time I step on the field, I’ve got to play like it’s my last play, because I don’t want to leave nothing on the field that I shouldn’t have.”
Success in the 2021 season will mean learning from last season’s campaign-ending playoff loss to the rival Cleveland Browns.
“Going into the Browns game, I don’t think we came out hungry in the first five minutes. They were just more hungry. There were more dogs than us,” Smith-Schuster says. “We fought back, but it wasn’t enough to win the game and we fell short. I think a lot of the time, we saw the minor mistakes we had were just adding up to these bigger pictures. What I can take from last year into this year is that you’ve got to keep playing. You got to keep fighting until the whistle blows and attention to detail is where it’s at.”
Planning to play a bit more outside this year and spend less time in the slot, Smith-Schuster is shooting to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, 100 catches and 10 touchdowns. But those personal goals aren’t as significant to him as sending Roethlisberger off as a winner. “It’s very, very important. I’m going to do everything I possibly can to make his year the best year,” he says.
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