JuJu Smith-Schuster goes from hero to Hines Ward in two days

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers might just have a superstar in the making at wide receiver opposite Antonio Brown.

Brown is the unquestioned alpha receiver and is tied for the league lead with 11 touchdowns. But while trailing in the fourth quarter at Jacksonville, Ben Roethlisberger turned to JuJu Smith-Schuster for four catches for 74 yards on the final two drives, including a beautiful back-shoulder fade against Jalen Ramsey that helped seal Sunday's 20-16 win.

"I think JuJu was kind of a hero today," Roethlisberger said after the game.

Smith-Schuster's prowess as a pass-catcher is undeniable now. He's 12th in the NFL in receptions (64) and yards (866), leading the team in both categories.

But coach Mike Tomlin points to a different area of Smith-Schuster's game -- his physical play as a blocker -- that's grown the most from Year 1 to 2, and it leads him to some high praise.

"He’s Hines Ward-like in some of those things," Tomlin said during his weekly news conference Tuesday. "I realize what I said when I said that. But, this guy enjoys (physicality). He embraces it. I think it helps us."

As a rookie, Smith-Schuster laid major hits on Vikings safety Harrison Smith and Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict, the latter drawing a one-game suspension. Smith-Schuster promised he wouldn't abandon the physicality in his sophomore year, and he's exceeded expectations.

Roethlisberger openly wondered during training camp how Smith-Schuster would respond to defenses game-planning more for him this year. Nearly four months later, Roethlisberger is calling Smith-Schuster a "special football player" after a game-winning performance.

"I tip my cap to him because we moved him around and put him in spots to win today, and he won for us," said Roethlisberger, who connected eight times for 104 yards with Smith-Schuster.

Smith-Schuster typically mans the slot in three-receivers sets, but the offense took him inside-out to exploit matchups.

Smith-Schuster turns 22 on Nov. 22 and was the league's youngest player when the team drafted him in the second round of the 2017 draft. He's marketable off the field and explosive on it. But because of the youth, some wondered whether he'd showcase the maturity necessary to make a Year 2 leap.

How's this for a combination of youth and professionalism: Smith-Schuster wore a cheetah-print suit Sunday -- calling his shot for the Jaguars game, to be sure -- but spoke of his fifth 100-yard performance of the season like a veteran.

"Just play our football, Steeler football," Smith-Schuster said. "Just doing the right thing."