(Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)
Ben Roethlisberger deserves to be in the league MVP conversation this year so far. Through 10 games, he's completed 223 of 334 passes (66.8%) for 2,267 yards and has a touchdown-interception ratio of 22-4, along with a quarterback rating of 103.0. He has facilitated the ball to his skill players well with five receivers having at least three touchdowns or more (the only team to accomplish that feat this season). It's arguably the deepest receivers group that Roethlisberger has ever played with.
"It's a special group," Roethlisberger said of the receivers. "It's complete in the sense that everybody is contributing, everybody is getting moved around. If you look at an offense, you have your traditional X (receiver), your traditional Z and F and those guys stay in that spot. What we have done this year is throw the letter out the window and just say you are going to go to this spot, you are going to go to this spot. That is a credit to those guys that they don't need to be in their memorized spot. They are able to learn the whole package and understand when things are changed that's what they are supposed to do. In terms of just moving guys around and them understanding it, I think it's pretty cool."
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the team's bona fide No. 1 wide receiver and Roethlisberger has built a stellar connection to him in the last four games. Since the Titans game on Oct. 25, Smith-Schuster has 31 receptions for 322 yards (10.4 average) and two touchdowns. He has especially been impressive when it comes to catching passes over the middle of the field and fighting for extra yardage.
"Trust. There is a lot of trust there," Roethlisberger said. "He is a guy that has been in the system for a while. He is a guy I can line up anywhere and he knows what to do. What you see from him in terms of his demeanor, his attitude, when the ball is in his hand is determination. It's unbelievable. There have been times in the last couple of games when I have gotten the ball to him on third and whatever, and he has caught it a little bit short of the first down, and I have 100 percent confidence he is going to find a way to get the first down.
"He is just a competitor. He is fun to play with. I am so proud of him. He is not putting up gaudy numbers like he has in the past but the things he is doing is just as important for this offense and this team in any year he has done."
Smith-Schuster's play over the last four weeks has been similar to how Hines Ward played when he was in Pittsburgh -- willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win. It doesn't matter if he has to make a tough combat catch over the middle on third down or fight off defenders for extra yardage. He's going to get the job done.
"He is tough. He can make combat catches. He gets those first downs when you need them," Roethlisberger said of Smith-Schuster. "He is smart. He is a guy you can move around and put him pretty much anywhere and he knows what to do. He helps get other guys lined up. I think when you have a guy when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, all the different slangs you want to use. When you have a guy like JuJu that I know and trust him, it makes you feel pretty comfortable."
Smith-Schuster was asked about his knack for making big plays on third down, also known as the "money down." Smith-Schuster has 10 receptions for 97 yards (9.7 average) and a touchdown on third down in the last four games. (Only including receptions that went for first-down yardage on third down.)
"Third down gets you paid," Smith-Schuster said. "You make plays on third down, you move the sticks, you get another set of three downs to make plays and drive to the end zone. On third down our goal is we don't want to be in that situation where it's third-and-long, third-and-10, third-and-five. I love and I embrace those moments. I am hoping the ball will come my way. I pray the ball comes my way. I just want to make a play. It's not just me. I am pretty sure everybody on the team they want to make a play for the offense."
Smith-Schuster was also asked about how deep the receivers group is and how it's tough for a defense to defend all five of them.
"I don't know. That's tough," Smith-Schuster said. "That is something. We haven't been stopped yet. It's tough. You can play man-to-man across the board, but Ben is going to put us in the best situation to get the ball. You can play zone, but we're going to have all the spot balls.
"It's going to be tough. I don't know. No one has stopped us yet doing it. It's our bread and butter and we are going to keep on doing it."
Speaking of Ward, he was a coach for the Steelers during training camp in 2017, which was Smith-Schuster's rookie season. Smith-Schuster said he learned a lot from Ward from that short period.
"One of Hines Ward's favorite routes was to run like a choice route, kind of like the middle read of the field," Smith-Schuster said. "That's something that I took (as) a passion if I can master that to the point where I can be the best I can be at that for our team, getting to spot routes, spot balls and just getting the first down within four to three yards. And that's something that I took from him. Obviously, the physicalness is something that I've always had in myself. And, you know, Hines was a physical guy. Those were like the two main things that I took from Hines Ward at the time being with him in training camp."