Tomlin: Will be collective effort to fill JuJu void

NFL

PITTSBURGH — With wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster scheduled for shoulder surgery Wednesday that will sideline him for four months, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn’t looking for one person to replace his star receiver.

Instead, it will be a collective effort by players like James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud to fill the void left by the fifth-year receiver, who will be placed on injured reserve.

“When you talk about losing a guy like JuJu and how he functions within the framework of our offense, usually you’re talking about multiple people assuming the role in some form of fashion,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “… We’re not trying to replace JuJu. We’re just trying to provide additional opportunity for those that get expanded roles.”

Smith-Schuster was fourth on the Steelers in targets through five weeks and only had 15 receptions for 129 yards and a rushing touchdown. But even limited with the shoulder injury last week and the injury to his ribs against the Cincinnati Bengals, he played 69% of offensive snaps this season.

Smith-Schuster, 24, was also a reliable target for Ben Roethlisberger. Since the start of last season, Roethlisberger had a 72% completion rate to Smith-Schuster, 10% higher than when he targeted all other receivers, according to ESPN Stats and Information. And, while the rest of the Steelers’ receiving corps struggled holding on to the ball, Smith-Schuster had only two drops since the start of the 2020 season, while his teammates had 43 in the same span.

Washington, McCloud and Cody White, who signed to the active roster from the practice squad before the Steelers’ Week 5 victory against the Denver Broncos, are first in line to absorb Smith-Schuster’s on-field responsibilities and join Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool as the Steelers’ top receiving options.

Washington previously asked for a trade during the preseason because he was unhappy with his limited role on the team, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter, but he remained with the Steelers after his request. With injuries to others in the receiving room like Claypool and Johnson, Washington has already had an expanded role this season, but Smith-Schuster’s injury gives him a more permanent place.

“We got a lot of confidence in James, and so however unfortunate the injury is for JuJu, it does provide an opportunity for James to expand his role and to do some things that we all know he’s capable of doing.” Washington missed the Broncos game with a groin injury, but Tomlin said Tuesday he expects him to return to practice this week with a “strong consideration” to play Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks.

In four appearances this season, Washington has nine receptions for 99 yards, including a 30-yard catch against the Packers. He’s shown big-play ability in his limited snaps throughout his career, and Roethlisberger advocated for Washington to get on the field more a year ago.

The Steelers will also look to primary return man McCloud as another player to plug the holes left by Smith-Schuster. And, it will give White, who filled multiple roles on the practice squad replicating opposing teams’ best receiving threat, a chance to make an impact on his own offense.

“Ray Ray carved out a niche for himself as a return man, but that’s his day job, and he’s been working to develop as a receiver and has done a great job of doing so,” Tomlin said. “For a guy like Cody White, who’s been fighting and scrapping for an opportunity to to lay a foundation for where he hopes to be a good career for him. And he’s had a window because of lack of availability of others over the course of the last several weeks.”

Tomlin also didn’t rule out looking outside the organization for help filling out the receiver room. “Obviously, we’re going to need some some depth there, and I’m sure that we’ll have those discussions who are what that looks like depends on what the field looks like,” Tomlin said. “Oftentimes, we’re looking for the best available professional as opposed to a guy with a particular skill set.”

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