JuJu Smith-Schuster out to prove he's a deep threat

JuJu Smith-Schuster has made a Pro Bowl and set numerous Steelers and league records in his first two NFL seasons. Yet there seem to be just as many questions about his abilities entering Year 3 as there were when he was drafted out of USC in 2017.

Actually, they're the same questions, only now they're being asked more frequently in the wake of Antonio Brown's absence: Can he be a go-to receiver? Can he be a deep threat?

One could easily argue Smith-Schuster, still just 22 years old, has already proven the former. After all, his 111 receptions and 1,426 receiving yards last season were both team highs. The caveat, if there is one, would be that he was able to do a lot of his damage lining up inside. To that end, Smith-Schuster said he spent the offseason preparing to play more on the perimeter.

"Being able to catch the deep balls down the field, those go balls, those free balls that they send down the field where I've got to go make those plays," Smith-Schuster told Kevin Gorman of the Tribune-Review. "That's what I've focused on a lot, catching the ball over the shoulder and being able to be a threat on the outside."

For what it's worth, Smith-Schuster was primarily used as an outside receiver in college and frequently produced big plays. But running a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash had many wondering about his long-distance speed and likely contributed to his second-round selection.

Pittsburgh's quarterback says any talk of Smith-Schuster being limited downfield is inaccurate.

"I've never not targeted him or looked at him or thrown him a long ball because it was him," Ben Roethlisberger said. "He never had to prove anything to me. I think he can do anything we ask him to do. We ask him to do more than anybody else. We ask him to play slot, back-side single, front-side to the trips. He's a very well-rounded receiver."

So much so that Big Ben believes his new No. 1 is more valuable than most receivers who carry that distinction.

"I think a lot of No. 1s are one-spot guys," Roethlisberger said. "You can move guys around by formations but to literally play a different position -- he plays X, F, Z -- JuJu can do it all and he's uniquely different in that sense because he can do kind of everything.

"That's different than a lot of No. 1s, truthfully."

While Smith-Schuster's role will inevitably be different this season, the Steelers are hoping the results are about the same.