'Third down gets you paid': JuJu Smith-Schuster embracing new identity with Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- Facing a third-and-7 late in Sunday's win against the Cincinnati Bengals, Ben Roethlisberger took the snap, dropped back and looked down the field for his receivers.

It didn't take long for the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback to find JuJu Smith-Schuster underneath, running wide open on a crossing route.

Smith-Schuster corralled the ball and turned up field, running toward the sideline and the first-down marker. Just before he reached the marker, two Bengals defenders stepped up to engage. But Smith-Schuster lowered his helmet ever so slightly, secured the ball and ran right through them, picking up the first down.

Two plays later, the Steelers sealed the win with a Chase Claypool touchdown, giving them a four-score lead and an early exit for Roethlisberger and the first-team offense.

Known more for his splash plays and viral social media presence before this season, Smith-Schuster, 23, is making his mark this year with a physicality and toughness that has made him Roethlisberger's go-to guy on possession downs.

And, it might be what keeps him in Pittsburgh after this season.

"Third down gets you paid," Smith-Schuster said. "As far as you make plays on third down, you move the sticks, you give your offense another chance to get another three set of downs to make plays and to drive to the end zone. On third down, although we don't want to be in that situation where it's third-and-long or third-and-10, third-and-5, I love and I embrace those parts.

"I'm hoping the ball comes my way, I'm praying the ball comes my way. Just because I want to make a play."

Smith-Schuster has 27 targets on third down, tied for second in the NFL, and he has 22 receptions on those downs, tied with Keenan Allen for the most, per ESPN Stats & Information research. He has three receiving touchdowns and 16 first-down receptions on third downs. Of his 516 receiving yards, 190 of them have come on third-down plays, and more than a third of his 257 yards after catch have come on third downs.

"There have been times in the last couple games where I have gotten the ball to him on third-and-whatever, and he has caught it a little bit short of the first down," Roethlisberger said. "I have 100% confidence that he's going to find a way to get the first down. He's just a competitor. He is so fun to play with. I'm so proud of him. He's not putting up gaudy numbers like he has in years past, but the things that he is doing is just as important for his offense and this team as in any year that he has done."

Smith-Schuster is guaranteed to be with the Steelers only through this season. The Steelers didn't get a new deal done with their No. 1 receiver before the start of the regular season, and they don't negotiate contracts during the season. The organization also doesn't typically give second contracts to wide receivers, awarding only two -- to Hines Ward and Antonio Brown -- in recent history.

But if he continues the way he has been playing through the first nine games of their undefeated season, the Steelers might have no choice but to bring him back. Even if it takes working a small miracle to get cap compliant when they're already a projected $3 million over for the 2021 season.

"I can't imagine how they can move forward without him," ESPN NFL analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky said. "I can't imagine it. I'm not the person who cuts the checks, but he has become this generation's Hines Ward for them. The guy that no matter what, he's going to show up. No matter what, when you need that play that sometimes goes above the X's and O's, that goes above what the coaches drew up, that uncanny ability to just make a play, he's become that person."

The comparison with Ward is an apt one.

Smith-Schuster spent his rookie training camp learning from the Steeler great when Ward served as a coaching intern in 2017.

Not only did Smith-Schuster learn the mechanics of Ward's signature choice route in the middle of the field, but he also got a firsthand look at the aggressiveness that made Ward one of the most effective receivers in Steelers history. He didn't get as many opportunities to show that physicality catching passes, but he put it on display with his run blocking.

"The physicalness is something I've always had in myself," Smith-Schuster said. "Hines was a physical guy. Those are the two main things I took from Hines Ward at the time."

Smith-Schuster (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) has a bigger build than Ward, but both have similar playing styles as stronger-than-average slot receivers. Statistically, Smith-Schuster might even be more physical. Ward has only had more yards after catch than Smith-Schuster in one season in games tracked by ESPN Stats and Info since 2001. In 2009, Ward had 274 YAC, while Smith-Schuster recorded 257 so far this season. Smith-Schuster also has a career average of 5.67 YAC per reception, ahead of Ward's mark of 4.15.

"Hines brought physicality to the inside receiver position," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "JuJu does look naturally built, thick and strong and tough. You have to love how JuJu plays. I think we're always pushing the envelope to try and figure out where he best fits weekly -- insides and outsides and motions and stacks, bunches things like that. JuJu is a very intelligent young receiver. I still say young even though he's been here a while. He's still young in all regards. I think he's done an unbelievable job of playing physically, giving us that presence of physicality."

With an even younger wide receiver group, Smith-Schuster, who turns 24 on Sunday, is a leader on the field and at the position, showing great maturation from the boy wonder who showed up to his first Steelers practices on a bike as a rookie.

"I know he starts the group drills when he isn't practicing," Fichtner said. "I know that he double checks and makes sure that everyone of his group is on his Zooms, they're where they're supposed to be and stuff like that. He's like a big brother to them, if not maybe father.

"That's a lot on a guy who like you said is 23, but he has been here. He's seen a lot. He can give back a lot. I remember Hines and how much he wanted to always give back to the younger players. That's just that important to do, and JuJu is doing it just like a lot of great veterans, in Pittsburgh at least, do it."

Smith-Schuster gained popularity early in his career as the fun-loving kid with the highlight-reel, flashy plays and viral dances, but he's maturing into a gritty, hard-working receiver and one of Roethlisberger's favorite targets. In doing so, he's endearing himself to the fans -- and to the franchise in a way that might keep him around past 2020.

"He knows what the people of Pittsburgh kind of want in their football players the most or appreciate in their football players the most," Orlovsky said. "It is the things that you can't measure. It is that show up and make that play when we need you the most or be physically tough or give everything you've got. They love all great players and stuff like that, but those are the guys that they love the most.

"I think he's really taken that to heart, and it shows in his game."