PITTSBURGH (AP) — With stars such as Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster admitted he was a little surprised to be voted as the team’s most valuable player.
But a breakout second season earned Smith-Schuster the respect of his teammates and MVP honors for the 2018 season.
“I didn’t think that it was going to be me,” Smith-Schuster said on Thursday. “With the numbers they put up, you would think that it’s always one of those guys.”
Smith-Schuster, the Steelers’ second-round pick in 2017, is tied for fifth in the league with 106 catches and fourth in the NFL with 1,389 receiving yards, while also scoring six touchdowns.
The dynamic 22-year-old is the youngest NFL player to reach 100 receptions in a season. He caught 11 passes for 115 yards last Sunday at New Orleans despite battling a groin injury sustained in practice.
“He’s been very consistent, and he’s battled through injury, on again, off again all year,” Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said.
“He’s learned how to be a pro and I think his teammates realize that about him. He’s brought a lot of energy to our group.”
Smith-Schuster, a former USC star, enjoyed a dynamic rookie season with 58 receptions for 917 yards and seven touchdowns, but he’s outdone himself in 2018.
Smith-Schuster’s 1,389 yards are the seventh most in single-season team history and his eight 100-yard receiving games — third most in the league through Week 16 — are tied for the second most by a Steeler, behind Brown, in single-season team history.
Smith-Schuster reached 1,500 yards in his 21st game and caught his 150th pass in his 28th, setting a franchise record in both categories for the fewest to the mark.
Now, he’s 111 yards shy from a 1,500-yard season and four receptions from becoming the third player in team history — joining Brown and Hines Ward — with 110 catches in a season.
Smith-Schuster said the Steelers MVP award meant more than a Pro Bowl snub earlier this month.
“My teammates and people in my locker room voted for me,” Smith-Schuster said. “It means a lot that they have my back.”
The 36-year-old Roethlisberger, in his 15th season, is also in the midst of career milestones.
Roethlisberger, who was voted team MVP in 2009, needs 158 yards Sunday against Cincinnati to break his franchise record for most passing yards in a season and become the sixth NFL quarterback to reach 5,000 yards in a season.
Brown, a four-time team MVP, is also enjoying another strong season. He leads the league with 15 touchdowns, is tied for seventh with 104 receptions and ninth with 1,297 receiving yards.
Smith-Schuster said he appreciated the support from his teammates.
“You talk about guys who have been in the league for 10 years-plus,” Smith-Schuster said. “I’m only 22 years old and this is only my second year in the league. To have their respect, it’s awesome.”
Smith-Schuster said he sought to build a better rapport with Roethlisberger entering his second season. He wanted to establish a similar chemistry with Roethlisberger that the Super Bowl-winning quarterback has shared with Brown for several seasons.
“It’s pretty cool that I was a kid watching (Roethlisberger and Brown) go at it every week and put those numbers up,” Smith-Schuster said. “To be part of it and to do what they’re doing is pretty cool.”
Now, Smith-Schuster, like Roethlisberger and Brown, can call himself a Steelers team MVP.
“You always want to see a big jump from the first year to the second, and then the bigger jump is in the third year,” Steelers receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey said. “I think he’s already taken that third-year jump and he’s going to continue to get better.”
NOTES: Brown missed Thursday’s practice with a knee injury. Safety Sean Davis (quad) and linebacker Vince Williams (toe) also didn’t practice on Thursday. RB James Conner, who missed the past three games with an ankle injury, practiced for the second straight day.
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