Coming into the 2021 campaign, some wondered if that Steelers streak might end — even before their future Hall of Fame quarterback injured his left pectoral muscle in a Week 2 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders. It's the kind of uncertainty that JuJu Smith-Schuster can't help but embrace.
"I love being the underdog," the Steelers fifth-year wide receiver told CBS Sports. "It's something new for me. It's something new for the Steelers. It definitely makes me hungrier to win."
The Steelers began the 2021 season with an upset victory in Buffalo, but for the team to contend until December and January, Smith-Schuster -- who signed a one-year deal to return to Pittsburgh in March -- will need to make the kind of impact he did in his first two seasons. Remember, this is a dude who as a sophomore NFLer out-did prime Antonio Brown in 2018, amassing a ridiculous 111 receptions for 1,426 yards (Brown had 104 grabs for 1,297 yards) — numbers that make you want to stop what you're doing and find a logo to dance on.
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The USC alum wisely, skillfully, and perhaps to the ire of his critics, leveraged his early dominance on the field to become a social media megastar, found a gaming collective called Team Diverge, and form countless brand partnerships. Currently, he's an ambassador for 7-Eleven—a company that he says is "near and dear to his heart," since he drank blueberry Slurpees every weekend in high school and college. And he's even moonlighting as a DJ.
While the 24-year-old is doing exactly what a young person should do — trying a bunch of different things to see what sticks — his play on the field hasn't cleared the bar he set for himself as a neophyte. Over the last two seasons, he's averaged less than 700 yards receiving.
CBS Sports recently caught up Smith-Schuster, who sang the praises of teammates Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson, reflected on his potential "Last Dance" with Big Ben, shared social media tips to become an #elite influencer, and much more. We even grilled him on his Madden knowledge.
The following Q&A has been edited for clarity, flow, and length.
CBS Sports: Tough loss to the Raiders in Week 2, but great win against the Bills in Week 1. How much stock do you take in these first two games, and how important is a win against a Super Bowl favorite coming out of the gates?
JuJu Smith-Schuster: I think it's very important. That "W" meant a lot because we played a Super Bowl contender, at their field, a team that knocked us off last year. At the same time, it's important people don't judge a team or a season at the beginning of the year. Before we play a game or after we play [a couple of games]. We have young guys coming in, I think one of our biggest things that got talked about and addressed in the offseason is our offensive line.
Before every season, people usually put us as one of the top 10 teams in the league. This year, we were ranked one of the lowest because of all the new pieces we've got. For us, a lot of people don't actually know what we're made of. You can say that we're the underdogs this season because of how hard our schedule is, us having a new (offensive coordinator), all that's brand new. We're not the big dogs. Usually we're the big dogs.
So you like that underdog role, you're embracing it?
JSS: Yeah, I love being the underdog. It's something new for me. It's something new for the Steelers. It definitely makes me hungrier to win. Makes us hungrier to win.
The rookie season that Chase Claypool put together in 2020 reminded me a lot of yours. Watching him in practice, playing alongside him on Sundays, what impresses you the most about Chase, and what do you think is his ceiling as a wideout in the NFL?
JSS: Chase is always willing to do what's best for the team. And I noticed that in my first year playing with him when things weren't going our way. He stays hungry. When his number is called, he makes a play, always wants to make a play. He did that against the Bills [two] weeks [ago]. When we need a big play to be made, we look to Chase to go down field. That's what I love about him.
Besides the whole social media thing, which he's killing it on there too… He definitely sees me as his mentor and leader with that [laughs]... He's got the height, the size, the talent. It's all up to him about how far he wants to go, but I think he's a number one receiver.
On the Steelers, you're saying?
JSS: On the Steelers, absolutely. He can be a number one receiver anywhere in the league, honestly. Same with Diontae [Johnson]. We've got the best receivers in the league, man.
So you see best wide receiver in the league potential for both Chase and Diontae?
JSS: Yeah. I think in our group on the Steelers, we have a lot of number one receivers. We're all just so young, and when we play together, we're dominant.
That's some high praise. What's the dynamic like between the three of you?
JSS: We're obviously competitive, on the field we want to outdo each other for sure, but really it's all love. There's no, "Hey, I want the ball more. I get this, you get that." None of that stuff. It's all about we just want to win. We all really believe that once you win, everyone wins. That's exactly what we've been doing over the years and has made us successful.
You've played with so many great offensive players in your short career. Going down the list of dudes, it's pretty stacked. Who do you feel like is the best offensive player that you've lined up with in Pittsburgh?
JSS: Big Ben is number one on the list for sure. Besides Ben, I'd say it's three guys honestly because they were all crazy gifted. We called them the "Big Bs." Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Le'Veon Bell.
My rookie year, when I got there, those were the guys in the building. I was like wow, these dudes are on another level. I didn't start that year. I was a backup to Martavis. To watch him play, to watch AB play and dominate, I just saw how legit those guys were. I looked up to them. In practice, during the game, 24/7, those guys were always balling.
Who's the best defender you've competed against?
JSS: I'd say Stephon Gilmore, for sure.
What makes him so special? Different from other guys?
JSS: When I've played against him, he's very legit. I've only gone against him twice, but he's an incredibly smart football player. He just knows angles and techniques and all that, and he locked me up. I can't lie. He's the greatest I've seen on that side of the ball and the greatest I've played against.
Circling back to Big Ben for a second, we've heard the retirement rumors with him. Obviously, you signed your one-year deal with the Steelers heading into this year. I've been sensing some 'Last Dance' type vibes. Not as far as team dissension, but more so it possibly being Ben's final season in Pittsburgh. Is that the assumption in the locker room?
JSS: As of right now, it's tough. I think a lot of people feel that this is Ben's last dance of actually going out there and playing. For me, I see how good and dominant he can still be.
That's why I came back, honestly. I knew that if this is Ben's last year and this is my last year with the Steelers, I knew we were going to go out there and give it our all. I think it's really cool that you just never know. We always mess around in the locker room, telling him, "Hey man, you should come back for five more years."
For him, he leaves a great legacy. If he decides to come back, amazing. If he decides not to come back, we're psyched about everything he's done. It's hard to tell. Maybe down the line, based on how we're doing as a team, he'll make a decision.
Maybe he'll surprise all of us and pull a Tom Brady and never, ever stop playing.
JSS: [Laughs]. Maybe, maybe. I know getting hit the way Ben does, it's taken a toll. But you never know.
This past offseason, you could have signed with Kansas City for more money, a team that just made it to the Super Bowl and is well positioned to get there again. A young, potentially GOAT-worthy quarterback in Pat Mahomes. If this was the NBA, I think the free agent in question decides to sign with the team favored to win a 'chip. Do you feel like there's more player loyalty and less championship chasing in the NFL than in the NBA?
JSS: Oh, absolutely. Because of free agency, NBA players are able to go where they want to go. Even players who aren't free agents. They can tweet this and that and get there a few days later. With football, you don't have much control over what you can do. You can say what you want to say, obviously, but it doesn't get you somewhere else necessarily.
If NFL free agency worked like NBA free agency, bro, teams would be stacked. It would just be one-sided. Two dominant teams in the AFC, NFC. But the way the NFL is set up now, it honestly balances things out a lot better.
What it sounds like you're saying is that both systems are flawed, but that the system the NFL has in place creates more competitive, and ultimately better, play than in the NBA.
JSS: For sure. Because every team in the NFL has star players. Multiple star players. It's always a good balance. There's never a team that's just so one-sided, head and shoulders above the rest. So many teams have a chance to win a Super Bowl each season, where that's not really the case with the NBA.
Shifting gears, what is it about 7-Eleven that made you choose to partner with them?
JSS: 7-Eleven is near and dear to my heart. Growing up, in high school, in college, I used to go to 7-Eleven to get Slurpees. My favorite flavor was blueberry, I used to get that every weekend.
Now, I'm helping them recruit the best team of influencers with Fuel Your Fandom. Me, Dak [Prescott], Erin [Andrews], we're trying to find superfan influencers. What happens is, if you submit a creative video or photo on social to show yourself as a superfan, you're entered for a chance to win $11,000, with additional money to spend on new 7-Eleven products.
One of the other things I think is really cool about this campaign is that it taps into your social media stardom. As someone who's built an enormous social following for himself on multiple platforms, including an account for Boujee (JuJu's bulldog with 226K followers and counting), can you provide me with a few quick tips if I'm trying to be big on social, like JuJu?
JSS: Oh, you trying to be big on social? I like that. The one thing I always tell everybody is be yourself. Be authentic. Don't change, don't try to be fake. Be the best version of yourself. Who you are and your personality, those go a long way. I say that's number one because you're not going to pretend to be someone or pretend to like certain things or do something that's not you for very long because at some point in your life, you'll get tired of it.
The second thing is constantly engage with your audience. Obviously with what we're doing with 7-Eleven, it's important people have Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, where basically you can share these crazy images or videos. That's how we involve the 7-Eleven fanbase and the JuJu fan base. So yeah, number two is constantly posting and engaging with your fanbase.
Third, always be present with what's going on with culture. Like make sure that you're engaged somehow in whatever's hot.
So again, Number 1: Be authentic, be yourself. Number 2: Constantly engage with your audience. Number 3: Always do things that are relevant in culture right now.
I feel like you could be teaching a course at USC about this, JuJu.
JSS: It's funny man. A lot of guys who are 5-10 years in the league, they hit me up asking what they can do on social. Can they do this, can they do that? Social has such a big impact. When you're able to make enough money off of social media and live off of it, it goes a long way. Especially having it [supplement] the money you get with football, since football definitely doesn't last forever. That's why I see social media as such a positive thing, and I try to serve as a role model in that space, talking about how important it is, for a lot of young guys. Young kids. Hopefully, I can be teaching it one day.
Can you name your own personal Madden ratings from every year of your career? And by that I mean, when each of the games first hit the shelf.
JSS: Wow, that is one thing no one has ever asked me! ... Oh my god.
If you don't know, take a guess because I have the answers in front of me.
JSS: Alright, my rookie year, I'd say I was a 73/74. My second year I was probably an 80. My third year I'd say I was an 86. My fourth year I'd say probably 84. And this year, I'm an 84.
For someone who's guessing, that was pretty impressive. You got three of them correct! Madden 18, first year in the game, you started out a 73. Madden 19, you were an 80. Madden 20, you were an 88. Madden 21, you were an 86. Madden 22, you're an 84.
JSS: Damn, look at me! I've come a long way. What a ride. [Laughs.]
Give me your Mount Rushmore of video games. Top 4 video games ever.
JSS: Alright, cool. Uncharted 4, best story mode game. Love it. Black Ops 1, just because I love zombies. God of War has been near and dear to my heart because I love the story mode, the storylines are insane. And obviously number four, it would have to be Madden. It's so fun that I'm in a game that I grew up playing. I don't play as myself much anymore, but it's really cool to see myself in there.
Alright JuJu, final question for you: As a kid, what was it or who was it that inspired you to play football?
JSS: I would say it was my stepdad. My stepdad came into my life when I was four. My last name Schuster, that's his last name, and I took it to embrace him and thank him. He's always been into football, and I loved that I found a sport where as a kid, I could hit people and not get in trouble. Like what? [Laughs]. That's what the game of football was to me. A chance to go out there, hit kids, and not get into trouble. It soon grew on me. I loved the game ever since then, to this day.