Tuesday's NFL: Shoulder injury ends season for Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster

Associated Press

Pittsburgh — JuJu Smith-Schuster’s combination of tenacity and almost theatrical joy endeared the wide receiver to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ coaching staff since the moment he arrived in 2017 as the youngest player in the NFL.

Now, the Steelers must find a way to replace both. Smith-Schuster’s season is over.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday the 24-year-old wideout is facing surgery on Wednesday and a trip to injured reserve after severely injuring his right shoulder in last week’s 27-19 win over Denver.

Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (19) takes a knee after injuring his shoulder against the Broncos last Sunday.

Smith-Schuster received the ball from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on an end-around in the second quarter and lowered his shoulder while preparing for a collision with safety Kareem Jackson. The play was typical of Smith-Schuster’s relentlessly physical approach to his position. He slouched to the turf, however, after the 3-yard gain, and needed to be helped off the field before heading to the hospital for further evaluation.

Smith-Schuster felt well enough on Monday night to host an event organized by his eponymous foundation with his right arm in a sling. While he’s expected to make a full recovery, it won’t be in time to help the Steelers (2-3) as they try to climb out of an early-season hole.

The loss is a setback for both Pittsburgh and Smith-Schuster, who opted to return to the Steelers on a one-year deal last spring rather than leave in free agency.

Smith-Schuster’s numbers this season were modest — 15 receptions for 129 yards — even as he continued to burnish his reputation as one of the league’s toughest receivers for his willingness to go over the middle, particularly on third downs.

Tomlin acknowledged his “heart aches” for Smith-Schuster. He said the team will rely on several players to provide the myriad contributions in the run and pass games that Smith-Schuster provided.

“We’re not trying to replace Juju,” Tomlin said. “We’re just trying to provide additional opportunity for those that get expanded roles.”

That list will likely include James Washington, Cody White and Ray-Ray McLoud. Washington missed the win over Denver with a hamstring injury but is by far the most experienced of the group. He also is at an interesting point in his career

A second-round draft pick in 2018, Washington has shown flashes but has also struggled to find consistent playing time. He reportedly asked for a trade during training camp — something Tomlin declined to acknowledge Tuesday — and now finds a chance to prove himself with his own trip to the free-agent market looming next March.

While Tomlin said he hasn’t spoken to Washington about what potentially lies ahead starting this Sunday night against Seattle (2-3), he stressed the team has no concerns about Washington’s attitude.

“James is a professional and a quality dude and teammate,” Tomlin said. “He’s always ready. He is always working. He’s low to no maintenance. I just got a lot of respect for him as a player and as a man.”

Washington isn’t the only player who figures to see an increased workload. Diontae Johnson had already become one of Roethlisberger’s most trusted targets and now likely becomes even more important, particularly on possession downs.

“He’s no longer a rookie,” Tomlin said of Johnson. “He’s been in some circumstances and situations. He’s understanding the game better. I think it’s allowing him to play faster. He’s finding his rhythm as a pro.”

The Steelers hope they found their rhythm as an offense against the Broncos. Rookie running back Najee Harris ran for a career-best 122 yards as Pittsburgh showed the balance it has spent most of the last three seasons desperately searching for to take a little bit off the 39-year-old Roethlisberger’s plate.

Extra points

Tom Brady says his heavily wrapped throwing hand is sore but he expects to play when the Buccaneers visit the Eagles on Thursday night.

Brady injured his right hand in the first half of Tampa Bay’s win over Miami on Sunday. He finished off his first career 400-yard, five-TD performance with a pair of scoring passes in the fourth quarter.

“It’s a little sore but I expected it to be,” Brady said. “We signed up for a contact sport. You get different bumps and bruises throughout the year and we’ll just deal with it the best we can. This bump and bruise happens to be on my hand. Just trying to be preventive and precautious, be smart. It’s less than 48 hours since it happened so it’s not like it’s had five days, but again I feel confident I’ll be able to go out there and do what I need to do.”

… The Buccaneers have removed Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden from the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium.

Gruden, who resigned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders following the discovery of emails he sent containing racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments, led the Bucs from 2002 through 2008.

In addition to winning the NFL title in his first season with Tampa Bay, Gruden’s 57-55 record over seven seasons make him the winningest coach in team history.

Gruden was fired after the 2008 season and inducted into the Ring of Honor in December 2017.

… The Titans have placed three-time Pro Bowl punter Brett Kern on the reserve/COVID-19 list.