Despite being highly productive during his four seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers, JuJu Smith-Schuster has somehow become one of the NFL’s more controversial figures.
Unfairly or not, his name has become equally as synonymous with his various extracurricular activities as his impressive accomplishments on the gridiron. The 24-year-old experienced a rollercoaster in 2020; even as the Steelers won the AFC North and his 97 catches ranked ninth in the league, the headlines about him focused on his TikTok dancing, or saying “the Browns is the Browns” before losing to those same Browns by double digits in the playoffs.
The drama has continued into the offseason. When former Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva joined the division-rival Ravens, he appeared to take a shot at Smith-Schuster, saying: “When you have a balanced offense, or when you run the ball, it’s obviously better for the offensive line. I’m assuming it’s not as fun for the wide receivers, because they’re not getting all the catches. They’re making the TikToks, and they’re having fun on their social media.”
Smith-Schuster hears the criticism.
“It’s part of their job,” he told The Post. “People are going to criticize, it’s how the world is.”
He was also eager to extinguish that particular fire, and put his former teammate’s words into context.
“For [Villanueva’s] stuff, I think what he was saying more so was that [he’d] prefer to be in a balanced offense than a more heavy passing offense. That’s honestly true, we couldn’t run the ball as much.”
Smith-Schuster did add, however, that “as far as the TikTok dances, [Villanueva] was a part of them. He was in my TikToks too, he was dancing, he was in Chase [Claypool]’s, too. As far as having fun, he had his fair share, too.”
Perhaps the Steelers will have more fun in 2021 if, as Smith-Schuster referenced, they are able to run the ball more effectively. Pittsburgh ranked dead last in the NFL in rushing yards per game in 2020, and the offense was especially stagnant in the second half of the season. After starting 11-0, they lost three straight games, scoring less than 20 points in each defeat. They needed a dramatic second-half comeback against the Colts in Week 16 to lock up the division.
It was around this time that Smith-Schuster’s “antics” became a talking point. Before every away game, he danced on each opposing logo pre-game and posted it on his TikTok. As the team endured a losing streak, opposing players started to call him out. “Let them do the talking, all the f–king dancing, we do the f–king work,” Bills QB Josh Allen was caught saying in the huddle before a victory over the Steelers.
Smith-Schuster took a huge hit from Bengals safety Vonn Bell in an upset loss a week later, and Bell hinted that his dancing added extra motivation behind the hit. “I see 19,” Bell said at the time. After that game, JuJu said he would stop dancing on the logos for good.
He’s put that behind him and is now focusing on 2021, possibly the final year with Ben Roethlisberger under center for the Steelers. They drafted Alabama running back Najee Harris in the first round to help solve their running game, though some could argue their offensive line was the thing that needed attention early in the draft. They did draft center Kendrick Green out of Illinois in the third round, but also lost Maurkice Pouncey to retirement – “our vet, our other captain on offense,” according to Smith-Schuster. Villanueva is gone, as well.
New offensive coordinator Matt Canada will have his hands full trying to figure out the running game, but JuJu has faith, saying “he’s built for this.” As for the passing game, Canada is already planning on getting Smith-Schuster involved in different ways than just in the slot: “Playing outside more, down the field, deep threat, moving around.”
He had higher-paying offers with other teams, but chose to take a one-year, prove-it deal to return to the Steelers for $8 million. There were rumors in the offseason that he would leave Pittsburgh, but taking less money to play with Roethlisberger one more time squashed them. He’s not moving to Los Angeles or Las Vegas for the benefit of his TikTok career – he’s all about ball, and is dead-set on proving his critics wrong.