While the Steelers' first loss of 2020 was a team effort, Pittsburgh's offense has taken the brunt of the criticism in the days following Monday's loss to the Washington Football Team. While the Steelers rushed for just 21 yards, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was the victim of several dropped passes, as the Steelers now lead the league with 31 drops. Pittsburgh's play calls have also come under scrutiny after Roethlisberger, facing a fourth-and-one with the game on the line, threw a deep back-shoulder pass to rookie running back Anthony McFarland. The pass fell incomplete and, several plays later, Washington scored what turned out to be the game-winning points.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, the Steelers' No. 1 receiver, offered a somewhat defiant answer when asked on Thursday if the offense should consider making changes to the game plan.
"We're 11-1," Smith-Schuster said, via ESPN's Brooke Pryor. "What we have in the kitchen that's cooking is really good."
Smith-Schuster's assessment of the situation is largely accurate. While their offense has become somewhat predictable in recent weeks (what happened to Chase Claypool's jet sweeps?), the Steelers' offense was top-five in the league in scoring during the season's first 10 games. And while defenses have started playing the Steelers' offense differently over the past two weeks (Washington, after watching how Baltimore played the Steelers a week earlier, used mostly man coverage while moving their safeties up to cut down on Pittsburgh's intermediate passes), the Steelers are most likely 12-0 heading into Sunday's game with Buffalo if they had managed to hang on to more of Roethlisberger's catchable passes against the Football Team.
Speaking of the drops, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin offered a solution to the problem if it continues to persist.
"They can catch the ball," Tomlin said, "or they can get replaced by someone who will catch it."
Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh's leading receiver since the start of the 2017 season, believes that the rise in drops is due to "people trying to make a play before it happens," adding that more focus and concentration on making the catch before turning upfield should eradicate the problem. As far as Tomlin's recent challenge, Smith-Schuster is using it as motivation.
"Coach T has always been transparent. If you can't do your job, we'll get someone to do it," Smith-Schuster said, via Steelers.com's Teresa Varley. "That is something he has always said. He has proven that. He has fired players before and brought in new guys. That is not something new. He is definitely right about that. Some people take it differently. For us as a team we take it very personal and it's motivation to get better and catch the balls."
One thing Smith-Schuster said he would welcome is more chances to make plays downfield. A receiver with two 97-yard touchdowns on his career stat line, Smith-Schuster is averaging a career-low 8.2 yards per catch this season. While his 73 catches are eight more than Pittsburgh's next leading receiver (second-year wideout Diontae Johnson), Claypool (13.8) and James Washington (13.7) lead the Steelers in yards per catch.
"Ideally, I have always felt like I can run down field and catch those deep passes," Smith-Schuster said. "Compared to last year or two years ago, the route tree I was running was a lot different. This year everything is a lot shorter. At the end of the day whatever they put in front of me, that is what I am going to do."
While Smith-Schuster is confident that he and his teammates will put an end to the drops, the Steelers' running game should also improve with the expected return of center Maurkice Pouncey and running back James Conner, who missed the last two times after being placed on the team's reserve/COVID-19 list. With Pouncey and Conner out, the Steelers rushed for 90 total yards over their last two games, and are now 29th in the league in that department heading into Sunday's game.