DETROIT — JuJu Smith-Schuster says he has picked out a Halloween costume, but “it’s a surprise.” It can’t be better than what he pulled off Sunday night, when he showed up to the Steelers game as Antonio Brown.
Smith-Schuster caught a 97-yard touchdown pass, and finished with a Brown-like 193 receiving yards for what might just be the best team in football. The Steelers beat the Lions, 20–15. They are now 6–2 and not terribly impressed with themselves. They think they can play better. They are correct. By January, this may be the scariest team in the NFL—with home-field advantage, too.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed some open receivers. Smith-Schuster was kicking himself for dropping a pass. Eli Rogers was mad he dropped a touchdown pass. Roethlisberger admitted this has been a season-long concern: “It can be frustrating at times because we’re not executing the way we want to.” And yet, the Steelers are winning anyway.
In a news world that did not seem to be on amphetamines, we might notice that these Steelers have had a wild year. Consider what’s happened with them since Jan. 1. Brown did a Facebook Live from a winning playoff locker room. Star running back Le’Veon Bell held out, saying he wanted to be paid as both a running back and a receiver. Roethlisberger publicly flirted with retirement, came back, then threw five interceptions in one game and announced, “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.” Receiver Martavis Bryant reportedly asked for a trade because he is unhappy. And of course, the Steelers were in the thick of the national-anthem story when they stayed in their locker room for the anthem, but lineman and former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva did not.
What’s amazing is that they are still 6–2 with four road wins, and also that the New York Post has not opened a Pittsburgh edition. Those back pages would be fantastic.
None of it seems to matter. Mike Tomlin’s team has shown no signs of splintering. If anything, the Steelers have smoothly incorporated the wackiness into their daily lives. Everybody knew Bell would come back and assimilate himself into the team. Roethlisberger’s public ups and downs are met with shrugs. Bryant has not actually distracted them.
And then there is Schuster, who looks and acts like the college kid he was just a few months ago but plays like a veteran. As he neared the end zone on his 97-yard reception, Smith-Schuster kept looking back to see who might catch him. His reasoning: “On Madden, my speed is like 82 or 83.” He figured the Lions must have somebody faster.
Smith-Schuster is so green that he rides a bicycle to practice. When that bike got stolen this week, Smith-Schuster asked the question that has vexed philosophers from Aristotle to Kierkegaard: How can I turn this into a touchdown celebration? He went to Home Depot Sunday and bought a chain. After he scored, he used the chain to pretend to lock up an exercise bike on the Steelers’ sideline.
It was an interesting use of his time, but so is this: He stiff-armed Lions defenders and said afterward, “I got that from Le’Veon. I’ve been watching him. It works.” How many rookie receivers incorporate a move from a veteran running back?
The Steelers are now 6–2, and their remaining schedule looks promising for those who say “yinz” and for those who get annoyed people think they say “yinz.”
They are off next weekend, giving Smith-Schuster time to go bike-shopping. After that, the Steelers visit the Chuck Pagano/Jacoby Brissett Colts, who will someday be featured in a trivia question: Who coached the Colts when Chuck Pagano was there? (Answer: Nobody.) Then they host the Titans, the only team in the league that almost lost to the Browns.
After that, the Steelers visit the Brett Hundley-led Packers. Then they visit the Bengals of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton, who have finally figured out that the way to avoid playoff embarrassments is to miss the playoffs altogether. Then they get the Ravens at home.
Predicting the result of an NFL regular-season game is a fool’s errand, but predicting the results of five NFL games is so much fun. Let’s give the Steelers one toe-stubbing in that stretch. It puts them at 10–3 entering a Sunday home game against the Patriots. That could be the most hyped game of the year in the NFL, assuming the league has not been reduced to shards of glass by then.
In last year’s AFC title game in Foxborough, the Steelers were overmatched and outcoached. But Bell got hurt early, the Patriots were probably a better team last year, and the Steelers look more complete now. That December Steelers-Pats matchup should be fun. We might get one in January, too.