Pittsburgh Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster seizes opportunity after Antonio Brown injury

By Jim Wexell, The Sports Xchange  |  Dec. 18, 2017 at 11:12 AM
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PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown made NFL history with his first catch of the game Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers star became the first receiver to catch 100 passes in five consecutive seasons.

His season most likely ended at 101 catches after Brown was helped off the field in the second quarter. He was taken to a local hospital and reportedly sustained a partially torn calf muscle that likely will keep him out of the Steelers' final two games.

Brown might return for the playoffs, and the Steelers hope a bye week will guarantee his return.

But to secure that bye, the Steelers are going to need a new go-to receiver.

Judging by rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster's performance, in particular his 69-yard play in the final minute, the Steelers could have their man.

"He stepped up," slot receiver Eli Rogers said. "He's always stepping up. He's always making plays. It wasn't a surprise."

Smith-Schuster -- the Steelers' second-round pick out of USC and, at 21, the youngest player in the league -- caught six passes for 114 yards Sunday in Pittsburgh's 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots. He has 43 receptions for 699 yards and five touchdowns this season.

It was his 69-yarder late in the fourth quarter that gave the Steelers hope, and it should have at least resulted in the tying field goal. However, a series of miscues cost the Steelers the game.

Starting at the Pittsburgh 21 with 52 seconds left after a touchdown and two-point conversion gave the Patriots a 27-24 lead, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and looked deep but checked down to Smith-Schuster, who was running a shallow cross.

Smith-Schuster took the pass and outran cornerback Eric Rowe, broke a tackle down the sideline, cut across the field and was tackled at the New England 10 by safety Duron Harmon.

In a three-point game, Smith-Schuster's run put the Steelers in position to tie or even win with 34 seconds remaining.

On the next play, the Steelers appeared to have won, but an apparent touchdown pass to tight end Jesse James was overturned by replay. Two plays later, Roethlisberger was intercepted on a deflected pass, and the Steelers never got the chance to attempt the tying kick.

The turn of events left Smith-Schuster steaming. He cursed the replay verdict before settling down and saying, "We've got to live with it. We'll come back and see them again. Got to keep moving forward."

Did he feel the urgency to step forward as Roethlisberger's go-to receiver with Brown down?

"Yeah, I think we all did," Smith-Schuster said. "What we did, we took AB's plate and we shared it. We all took part of it."

While Smith-Schuster didn't quite match Rob Gronkowski's nine-catch, 168-yard performance, he did lead a Steelers receiving corps that helped Roethlisberger complete 22 of 30 for 281 yards and a passer rating of 110.6. It was Roethlisberger's third rating above 110 this season and first without Brown for most of the game.

"When a guy of that caliber, the best wide receiver in the world, goes out, you have to step up as a receiving corps," Rogers said.

But there was one from among the corps who stepped up in particular.

"How awesome at the end was JuJu?" Roethlisberger said. "He gave us a chance down there. Guys just stepping up and doing great things, I'm proud of that."

It is something the Steelers can rally around. Something they need to rally around.

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