The New England Patriots snapped a five-game losing streak on a Thursday night in Pittsburgh, defeating the Steelers 21-18 and improving their record to 3-10. For those concerned about draft position, this win does not change the Patriots’ draft pick, with them still sitting tight at number two overall. Besides a much-needed win for the team, perhaps the most intriguing storyline that this game presented was JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return to Pittsburgh. Since leaving the Steelers to go to Kansas City after the 2021 season, Smith-Schuster hasn’t been back to Acrisure Stadium, (formerly known as Heinz Field, from when he played there,) since he was in the black and yellow.
Despite having a lackluster season so far with New England, catching just 25 balls for 170 yards and a touchdown before Thursday, Smith-Schuster pulled out all the stops for his homecoming, catching four balls for 90 yards, showing a glimmer of his former self. One of JuJu’s catches was a big 37-yard contested catch to ignite New England’s first scoring drive of the game.
It is no secret that before Thursday night, JuJu showed precious little on the Patriots after a productive season with Kansas City, catching 78 passes for 933 yards and three touchdowns en route to a Super Bowl win over Philadelphia. Patriots fans have been up in arms about acquiring Smith-Schuster from the beginning, since he was seemingly meant to be a replacement for the homegrown Jakobi Meyers. Meyers spent four seasons in New England after being brought in as an undrafted free agent. New England let Meyers walk in the 2022 offseason, where he then signed with the Raiders.
Meyers signed a three-year deal worth $33 million with Las Vegas, which included a signing bonus worth over $5 million and $21 million guaranteed, while Smith-Schuster signed a three-year contract worth $33 million with New England.
Although it hurt for Patriots fans to see Meyers go, Smith-Schuster seemed to at least be a lateral move, with both him and Meyers averaging just over 11 yards per reception coming into 2023. Some even argued that JuJu would be a slight improvement over Meyers, due to his ability after the catch. Both predictions would prove to be wrong, with Meyers having the better season so far, hauling in 57 passes for 616 yards and six touchdowns.
At the same time, some may have gone a little far in the opposite direction, with Albert Breer for instance, reporting before the season opener that Smith Schuster’s knee ''Could explode at any point'' JuJu would then counter Breer’s report, saying that “I don’t think my knee is a ticking time bomb, if anything, it’s something that’s getting stronger everyday”.
Breer’s preseason concern about Smith-Schuster’s knee stemmed from the offseason surgery he had due to an injury he sustained in the 2023 AFC Championship game against the Bengals. Smith-Schuster would then play on that injured knee in the Super Bowl against Philadelphia.
All in all, injuries have certainly been a detractor in JuJu’s career dating back to high school, where he broke his hand during his senior year, he then dealt with a couple of injuries throughout college, one of which would be a back injury that would affect his production in his last collegiate season. Schuster would also sustain a serious shoulder injury in his 2021 season with the Steelers.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, or John Smith, was born on November 22nd, 1996, in Long Beach, California. Smith-Schuster would get the nickname “JuJu” from his aunt and would legally change his last name to Smith-Schuster when he was in college to honor his stepfather. Smith-Schuster started playing football at the age of eight and was once coached by Snoop Dogg in a youth football league, where he would give JuJu yet another nickname, which was “SportsCenter”, saying that he would one day see his highlights on SportsCenter, right he was.
Smith-Schuster would attend Long Beach Polytechnic High School, which had a prestigious football program. At the time JuJu attended, Long Beach Poly Tech’s football program boasted the record for most players to make it to the NFL in the country. With the Jackrabbits, JuJu would play receiver and safety, and would leave as a five-star recruit, ranking second-best in the nation at receiver in his class and being ranked the 24th best overall player in the country. JuJu would originally commit to Oregon but would then change his mind to USC.
At USC, JuJu would put up great numbers from the moment he stepped on campus. In his freshman season with the Trojans, JuJu had 54 receptions for 724 yards and five touchdowns, as well as doubling as a kick returner. JuJu would earn the honor of Second Team All PAC-12 in his first season at USC.
Smith-Schuster's standout season would prove to be in his sophomore year, where he put up nearly 1,500 yards on 89 receptions and hauled in ten touchdowns. Smith-Schuster’s sophomore performance would earn him First-Team All-Conference and Second Team A.P. All-American Honors. As mentioned before, JuJu was dealing with a back injury his junior season, but he would still put up 914 yards and ten touchdowns.
Paired with his impressive college numbers, JuJu would put up good test results at the NFL combine, weighing in at 215 pounds and standing at 6’1’’, while running a 4.54 second forty. Smith-Schuster would total a score of 80 at the combine, and he would prove to have no problem transferring his abilities to the NFL. JuJu would be drafted in the second round with the 62nd overall pick by the Steelers in the 2017 Draft.
At 20 years old, Smith-Schuster would be the youngest player drafted in 2017, and the youngest player to start a game in week one of the 2017 season. A funny aside in Smith-Schuster’s rookie season was that he did not yet have his driver's license, so he would ride his bike to and from practices and games, and in late October of that year, his bike was stolen. Thanks to social media posts by Smith-Schuster and his teammates, he was able to have his bike returned to him within two days.
In his rookie year with the Steelers, JuJu walked into a crowded receiver room in Pittsburgh, with the depth chart containing names like Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant, and Darrius Heyward-Bey, among others. JuJu would sign a four-year rookie deal with Pittsburgh worth $4.19 million, along with a $1.19 million signing bonus.
Despite the vast veteran presence at his position, Smith-Schuster would put up 917 yards and seven touchdowns, quickly becoming one of Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite targets in his first NFL season. This is something that NFL fans have grown used to seeing, young receivers drafted by Pittsburgh becoming stars, with the most recent example being George Pickens, and past examples consisting of Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, and Antonio Brown. There is something special about Pittsburgh’s ability to be able to identify and develop talent in young receivers, something Patriots fans have been jealous of as of recently.
During his time in Pittsburgh, JuJu showed that he could be very dynamic and explosive at the pro level. As a Steeler, JuJu proved that he was just as good at coming down with contested catches as he was making guys miss in the open field, he could take a five-yard crosser and turn it into a 70-yard touchdown, and he could break multiple tackles at a time. Smith-Schuster was a great deep threat early in his career as well, with two 97-yard touchdowns as a Steeler, he also had a kick return in his rookie year that went for a 96-yard touchdown.
Smith-Schuster would explode in his second NFL season, catching 111 passes for 1,426 yards and seven touchdowns. In 2019, Antonio Brown would be traded to the Raiders, making Smith-Schuster the number one receiver, a title that he couldn’t seem to live up to, playing in just 12 games and only managing 552 yards and three touchdowns. In his last two seasons with Pittsburgh, JuJu would put up a combined 960 yards and nine touchdowns.
Seeing his decline in production, and maturity issues, consisting of making tik tok videos on opposing team’s logos and making immature comments to the media, among other things, Pittsburgh decided to part ways with JuJu, who earned himself another nickname... this time one that was less flattering. Schuster then went to Kansas City.
With the Pittsburgh win now in the rearview, JuJu and the Patriots will be back at Gillette Stadium to take on a much more formidable opponent in the Chiefs, another former team of JuJu’s. The Chiefs are currently reeling following two disappointing losses to Green Bay and Buffalo. Patrick Mahomes’ frustration has been evident. This would be the perfect time for the Patriots to pull of another upset win like Buffalo back in week seven, but their defense will have to play strong, and their offense will need players like JuJu to step up once again. Will Smith-Schuster have another surprising performance against another former team?
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