JuJu Smith-Schuster's intangibles make him irreplaceable in Steelers' locker room

JuJu Smith-Schuster has made a huge impact with the Steelers, and it wasn't just on the field, either, as his personality infused energy in the locker room and forged a strong bond with his fan base. Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire

PITTSBURGH -- The first thing coach Mike Tomlin mentioned when he gave a list of things the Steelers will lose with JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season-ending shoulder surgery wasn’t Smith-Schuster’s toughness in muscling yards after a catch or his reliability on third down.

It was his spirit, his effort, and then the quality of his play.

That’s not to say that Smith-Schuster’s quality of play will be easy to replace, but it’s the intangibles of the fifth-year receiver that will be the hardest void for the Steelers to fill.

“You can’t replace JuJu,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Wednesday morning. "... It's awful. I'll speak selfishly, I'm hurt. I miss that guy, what he brings to this team, his energy, his excitement, the leadership. It sucks. It really does. And I'm not the one hurt. I spoke to him on Sunday night, and I felt his pain through the phone, speaking to his mom as well.

"It's just sometimes things aren't fair, and we don't know why they happen. A guy that's given so much, means so much to this team and to me specifically. It's not fair."

And that’s exactly what made him so valuable to the Steelers organization on and off the field.

Love him or love to hate him, Smith-Schuster infused the organization and the wide receiver room with a youthful energy that was contagious to the rest of the wide receivers. No one else in the receiver room has a personality or a presence quite as impactful as Smith-Schuster. Diontae Johnson, a 2019 third-round draft pick, is an understated home run threat. James Washington is tough like Smith-Schuster, but he’s also a quiet worker. Chase Claypool, perhaps the closest with Smith-Schuster in the position group, is most like his friend with a big social media presence and edgy energy, but he lacks authority and veteran experience.

Even Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll acknowledged Smith-Schuster’s X factors as the thing the Steelers will miss the most, beginning this weekend in their prime-time matchup Sunday (8:20 p.m., ET, NBC).

“He’s a fantastic player,” Carroll said Wednesday. “I would bet he’s a big part of their team, too, because he’s got attitude and juice and all that to him.”

As seriously as he took his craft on the field, Smith-Schuster appeared to be carefree off it. His M.O. was having fun and inspiring people while doing it.

He made headlines from the minute he arrived in Pittsburgh for riding his bike to the Steelers’ practice facility because he didn’t have a driver’s license or a car. A few months into his rookie season, Smith-Schuster’s bike was stolen, which inspired a viral hashtag to find his wheels. The bike was returned, and the result was a touchdown celebration. He also has an internet-famous dog and a big following just for his video game prowess.

Sometimes being so online led to headaches, such as the dangerous crate challenge, or opponents getting fired up about his "Corvette Corvette" dance on their logos.

Tomlin even appeared to publicly chide his receiver when asked about the message he gives to his players about participating in dangerous social media trends.

“If you’re talking about those things and not football, you’re setting yourself up for failure,” Tomlin said in August. “We’re a group that’s singularly professionally focused on what it is that we have to do, and guys have individual responsibilities as adults.”

But Smith-Schuster was a fan favorite for the big personality he showed on social media, always stopping to sign autographs on the sideline during warm-ups or after games. And a week ago, he paid for the groceries of a woman who couldn’t find her debit card in the checkout line at a Pittsburgh grocery store.

“It grew to something bigger than I expected,” Smith-Schuster told ESPN earlier this year, explaining his fan base. “My personality, who I am, what I am, they just embrace it, and I’m thankful that I can be a positive role model for all people.”

With his arm in a sling and a lei around his neck, Smith-Schuster stood in front of a room full of people at his foundation’s annual charity luau on Monday, a day after learning his season was over, and he let the emotion pour out of him.

“I love this game so much, more than anyone will know,” he said, his voice broken and breathy. “I know the whole social media thing and the Tik Tok dances and all that, I do it because it’s my personality and I love it. Don’t get me wrong, but football will always come first. Without football, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Without football, I wouldn’t be a role model for a lot of people.”

That emotion is the essence of Smith-Schuster. It’s what the Steelers will miss the most with the leader of the receiving room sidelined for the rest of his one-year contract with the organization that took him in the second-round of the 2017 draft.

And, for as many intangibles as the Steelers will miss, there are quantifiable aspects of Smith-Schuster that will be hard to replicate.

Even as Roethlisberger developed a rapport with Johnson that made him the most targeted receiver this season, he continued to maintain a strong connection with Smith-Schuster, the kind that can be developed only through years of working together. The Steelers have the receiver room to absorb his targets and slide into the slot, but since the start of the 2020 season, when throwing to Smith-Schuster, Roethlisberger’s completion percentage (72%) and QBR (75) is significantly higher than when he targets any other player, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

He has also been a reliable third-down option dating to the 2020 season. He had 35 catches on third down, and 27 of those resulted in a first down. That’s the most of any Steelers receiver, and leaguewide, he trails only Keenan Allen (37), Davante Adams (32) and Calvin Ridley (28) for third-down conversions.

His toughness extends all the way to his knack for blocking and doing other dirty work -- the things that don’t end up in a box score but help spring the big plays.

“JuJu’s one of those guys that isn’t afraid of contact,” Roethlisberger said. “But you’ve got to be built for it too, and he is. Always was a guy that was physical and kind of set the tempo, so hopefully other guys will just carry that on.”

Like the rest of the team, Roethlisberger hopes Smith-Schuster will be around as he rehabs to continue to infuse the team with his energy, even from the sideline.

“Just being JuJu,” Roethlisberger said of what Smith-Schuster can still provide. “That’s special."

With Smith-Schuster’s shoulder injury and four-month recovery, Sunday’s win against the Denver Broncos very well might have been his last in a Steelers uniform. He signed a one-year deal to return to the team in free agency, eschewing more lucrative deals from juggernaut teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.

Instead, he opted to come back for what might have been a last ride -- maybe a last bike ride -- with Roethlisberger and an organization that lets him be himself.

And now, with one shoulder-dislocating hit, that ride is over -- maybe for good.