Ben Roethlisberger made it a point to check the emotional temperatures of his receivers in the locker room after the Steelers' win over the Eagles last Sunday. Specifically, Pittsburgh's veteran quarterback wanted to see what JuJu Smith-Schuster's demeanor would be like after the former Pro Bowl receiver caught just four of five targets for 28 yards in Pittsburgh's 38-29 win.
Roethlisberger, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said that he was thrilled to see Smith-Schuster smiling and being genuinely happy for teammate Chase Claypool, who on Sunday became the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in a game.
"He had the biggest smile," Roethlisberger said of Smith-Schuster, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. "He was having fun with other guys. I just just can't say enough about what that meant to me, what it meant to other guys and how proud we are of him. He truly was happy for Chase. He was happy that we won the game. Did he have huge stats? No, but we won the game, and it's all that matters.
"For a No. 1 receiver to feel that way in a locker room -- I told my wife about it, I told my closest friends about it -- that just made me really proud and made me happy that we have selfless guys on this team that are more about trying get their stats. I can't say enough about JuJu and what that meant after the game."
Roethlisberger has said similar things as it relates to other members of his receiving corps, specifically tight end Vance McDonald, who has made more of an impact as a blocker than as a receiver with the addition of fellow tight end Eric Ebron. And while Pittsburgh's depth has made it hard for any of the team's skill position players to accumulate large statistics, it is a major reason why the Steelers are 4-0 for the first time since 1979. Roethlisberger, who is enjoying a strong start to the season after missing most of last season with an elbow injury, has taken full advantage of his depth at the skill positions, as he has thrown 10 touchdown and just one interception through four games.
Despite not having a big statistical performance, Smith-Schuster still found a way to make a significant contribution in last week's win. With the Steelers ahead by two points with just over three minutes left, Smith-Schuster, after receiving instruction from Roethlisberger before the snap, altered his route in order to draw extra attention from the Eagles' secondary. Sure enough, the Eagles took the bait, which helped Claypool get open before scoring his fourth touchdown of the game.
Smith-Schuster's team-first attitude is one of the intangible things Steelers coach Mike Tomlin recently discussed on the "All Things Covered" podcast, hosted by Patrick Peterson and Bryant McFadden, when asked about the team's success at finding receivers via the draft. Tomlin, who in the middle of his 14th season as the Steelers' head coach, said that former Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward remains the blueprint as it relates to scouting receivers.
"That dude was a wide receiver, but he was so much more," Tomlin said of Ward, who won two Super Bowls with the Steelers that included an MVP performance in Super Bowl XL. "That's kind of a standard bearer for us. We're looking for football players who happen to play wide receiver. And Hines is just a good blueprint for that. A guy that I just appreciated on that level and really have modeled evaluation and selection of others based on that principle alone."
While Smith-Schuster currently trails Claypool for the team lead in receptions and touchdown catches, the four-year veteran will likely see his opportunities increase as teams begin paying more attention to Claypool, who received a message from Roethlisberger following Sunday's win.
"The thing I told him after the game is he's not going to be able to sneak up on anybody," Roethlisberger said of Claypool, who leads all rookie receivers with four touchdown receptions. "How he going to rise to the occasion now that people are going to be watching him?"