Jaguars free safety Tashaun Gipson wasn’t in the NFL when Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward was making crucial catches and delivering huge blocks.
But Gipson believes facing Steelers rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is what it must have been like.
In Smith-Schuster, Gipson sees a player who is talented, rugged and needs to be accounted for at all times when the teams meet Sunday in an AFC Divisional Round game in Pittsburgh.
“The thing about it is he’s not fast, he’s not strong, he does nothing that jumps out at you,” Gipson said. “He’s just that guy that’s a good football player.”
A good football player who has emerged despite playing on an offense crowded with other options.
There is no question Antonio Brown remains quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite receiver. Elsewhere, running back Le’Veon Bell is the key to the team’s underneath passing game, and receiver Martavis Bryant is the deep threat that stretches defenses.
But Smith-Schuster has carved out a niche, too.
Most of the time, that means making plays out of the slot. That’s where he started on a 97-yard catch-and-run touchdown at Detroit in Week 8, an 18-yard score at Houston in Week 16 and several other big plays.
Other times, Smith-Schuster has lined up in the backfield (4-yard touchdown on a shovel pass against Minnesota in Week 2) or out wide.
The constant has been the big plays.
Smith-Schuster finished the regular season with 58 catches for 917 yards (15.8 yards per reception) and seven touchdowns. He also had a kickoff return touchdown, a 96-yarder against Cleveland in Week 17.
No rookie had more receiving yards or touchdown catches than Smith-Schuster, who was the sixth receiver to come off the board when the Steelers chose him with the 62nd overall pick in April.
“He’s one of many players that will be a challenge for us defensively to contain,” Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said. “I don’t know if it’s a team that you can stop. You have to make sure you can contain them.”
The Jaguars came about as close as possible to stopping the Steelers during a 30-9 victory in Week 5, when they intercepted Roethlisberger a career-high five times and kept the Pittsburgh offense out of the end zone on all three red zone chances.
Putting together a similar effort will require sharp execution against Smith-Schuster, whose numbers have improved dramatically since the Oct. 8 game.
Smith-Schuster totaled eight catches for 102 yards in four games before facing the Jaguars, against whom he caught four passes for 58 yards. Over his last four games, Smith-Schuster caught 25 passes for 349 yards.
“You see what he’s done, especially after he played us,” said cornerback A.J. Bouye. “He’s been coming on good. He’s gotten better every game. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to go against him.”
Assuming the Jaguars have cornerback Jalen Ramsey shadow Brown, there will be quite a few chances for Bouye and Smith-Schuster to battle one another. In fact, Bouye could shadow Smith-Schuster much the same way, with cornerback Aaron Colvin heavily involved as well.
Even when Smith-Schuster isn’t being targeted, the Jaguars expect him to make an impact. Already, he has a big role in springing Bell on his outside runs. Smith-Schuster’s physicality is also helpful on quick screens.
“We joke around that he’s a rookie and hasn’t figured it out yet — that he doesn’t have to block,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. “He does a tremendous job of blocking. We’ve talked to our guys about it. He has no issues with blocking.”
No issues blocking. No issues making important catches. No issues scoring touchdowns. Smith-Schuster really does sound like Ward after all.
“He just goes about his business and does all the dirty work for the offense,” strong safety Barry Church said. “The thing with him is he does make some of the spectacular plays as well. We know we have to be ready for the challenges he presents.”
Phillip Heilman: (904) 359-4063