LATROBE — If anyone still has questions about JuJu Smith-Schuster being a true No. 1 wide receiver, they should talk to Josh Dobbs.
The Steelers backup quarterback was entrusted with the No. 1 offense Saturday during the first 2-minute drill of camp and he leaned on Smith-Schuster.
And scored in three plays.
“Obviously he’s making plays out here,” Dobbs said after a lethargic practice turned electric late. “He’s been a consistent playmaker, as he’s been the past two years here. So, yeah, it’s fun to have him out there catching balls and it’s fun to get the opportunity to go with him when I can.”
In shorts, without pads, a day after the “Friday Night Lights” practice in downtown Latrobe, and a day before the Heinz Field practice last night, the Steelers seemed to go through the motions — until the 2-minute drill.
Actually, the first-team offense had 1:39 on the clock with one timeout and the ball just on the far side of the 50, but Dobbs only needed the 39 seconds as he used only three passes to cross the goal line.
The first went to Smith-Schuster for 14 yards. The second was a difficult catch by tight end Vance McDonald for 19 yards. And the third was a 20-yarder to Smith-Schuster for the score with tight coverage at the pylon from cornerback Steven Nelson.
The NFL officials working practice told Mike Tomlin there were brief hands to the face by Nelson, but nothing that obstructed Smith-Schuster. Tomlin walked away from the conversation smiling because both receiver and cornerback performed well. “Man, that was good neutral contact,” Tomlin said.
It was also the best series of training camp for Dobbs, who’s being pressured by Mason Rudolph for the No. 2 spot behind Ben Roethlisberger and the game day helmet that goes with it.
“I love two-minute,” said Dobbs. “I love that element because the ball’s in your hand and you have the opportunity to go down and win the game for the team. It comes down to you. That’s what makes it fun.”
It’s more fun with a true No. 1, go-to receiver, and that’s for all the world what Smith-Schuster was yesterday — even with the absence of Antonio Brown.
“Definitely,” Dobbs said. “You’ve got to remember, football’s a team game. We have a lot of talent at the receiver position. Obviously JuJu’s going to get more targets because he’s going to step into ownership of that position. He’s shown he’s been able to dominate the game those first two years.”
Since Smith-Schuster was drafted in the second round of the 2017 draft, he’s caught 169 passes for 2,343 yards and 14 touchdowns. Last year his numbers were 111-1,426-7 and he was voted by teammates as Steelers MVP.
Soon after the award was announced, Brown went AWOL, was suspended for the regular-season finale, blamed it on an incident with Ben Roethlisberger at a morning walk-through that no one could recall, and later was traded per his demand.
Now the question is whether Smith-Schuster can repeat his prodigious output without Brown taking on the coverage focus of opponents.
“JuJu will still get one-on-ones,” Dobbs said. “He’ll make his plays. And if JuJu’s not open, Crief (Donte Moncrief) will be open. If Crief’s not open, (Ryan) Switz(er), Eli (Rogers) will be open. We’ve got guys who can make plays across the board. JuJu will be able to step up, and when we need him he’ll go down the field and make a play for us. He’s done that in the past. He’ll do it moving forward.”
Without Brown taking two defenders with him?
“I know what people are saying, that AB takes two defenders,” Dobbs said. “AB didn’t always take two.
“Think about when we went to play the Patriots his rookie year and JuJu had 100 yards receiving,” Dobbs added. “He put the team on his back. He was going down, making the game-winning play (69-yard catch-and-run) and he gets tackled on the 10-yard line.
“AB was out for a lot of the end of that season. AB’s been out of games and JuJu’s stepped up in his place and he’s made plays. It’s no worries.”
Brown was injured early in the second quarter of the narrow 2017 loss to New England. In the second half, Smith-Schuster caught three passes for 78 yards to finish 6-114.
In the ensuing two games without Brown, Smith-Schuster caught 15-218-2.
In the finale without Brown last season, Smith-Schuster caught 5-37-1.
His average per half without Brown on the field is 3.3-48-0.43, or per game it’s 7-96-0.9.
“We’re not worried about it,” Dobbs said. “JuJu’s a playmaker, and playmakers make plays.”
NOTES: Rudolph quarterbacked the second team to the 9-yard line but James Washington was tabbed short of the goal line on fourth down. The highlight of the drive was a 21-yard catch over the middle by Diontae Spencer on third-and-20. ... Running back Benny Snell made an outstanding, diving catch near the goal line on a second-and-goal pass from Rudolph that was ruled incomplete because Snell was thought to be out of bounds. ... Out with injuries Saturday were Sean Davis (finger) and Diontae Johnson (hip), both are day-to-day. ... T.J. Watt (hamstring) remains on the PUP list. Two years ago, James Harrison returned from a similar injury at the Heinz Field practice.