PITTSBURGH (AP) Juju Smith-Schuster felt a twinge in his left leg and limped off the Heinz Field turf, making a halting beeline for Pittsburgh Steelers trainer John Norwig. It’s become all-too familiar routine for the rookie wide receiver, one who has split his initial training camp struggling to stay on the field.
A few anxious moments followed, with Norwig poking and prodding before encouraging Smith-Schuster to walk it off.
Which, this time, he did.
”You just have to stay positive,” Smith-Schuster said. ”It’s all God’s plan. Injuries after injuries, it happens. Nobody’s perfect. My mentality is to stay positive.”
Smith-Schuster returned to finish with three receptions for 31 yards in a 19-15 loss to Indianapolis, including a 15-yard catch-and-run on third-down that showcased why the Steelers grabbed the 20-year-old from Southern California in the second round of the draft. Smith-Schuster caught a short crossing pass and bounced off a Colts defender to easily get the necessary yardage.
”Those guys thought they could hit me up high, but I’m like (teammate Markus Tucker), the Hulk,” Smith-Schuster said with a laugh. ”They hit me up high and I just broke out of it and got the first.”
Smith-Schuster also drew a pass interference that put the ball at the Indianapolis 1 late in the fourth quarter. The next snap, however, proved how far there still is to go. Smith-Schuster and Tucker got tangled up coming off the line, and Landry Jones’ pass intended for Smith-Schuster instead ended up in the hands of Colts defensive back Chris Milton.
Jones took the blame for the pick, saying it was his decision to audible from a run to a pass followed by a throw he called ”dumb and impatient.”
At least Smith-Schuster was on the field for it, part of a night of small but important steps by the key members of Pittsburgh’s rookie class not named T.J. Watt. The first-round pick has been impressive during camp, while the guys drafted behind him have been a mixed bag, mostly due to an inability to stay away from Norwig’s training table too long.
Safety Cameron Sutton finally made his preseason debut after being held out of the first two exhibition games with a lingering hamstring injury. The third-round pick tried to make up for lost time, collecting three tackles and breaking up a pass, impressing with his aggression and willingness to mix it up. One of his tackles was an impressive stop on Indianapolis running back Marlon Mack in which Sutton shot through the gap and stopped Mack for a three-yard loss.
”Obviously he’s got a lot of ground to make up and next week is going to be huge for him,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ”It was huge for him though to get out there tonight and get his feet wet and show that it wasn’t too big for him in some instances.”
The Steelers were won over during the pre-draft process by Sutton’s football IQ. It was readily apparent during Sutton’s first taste of the NFL. While he called the moment ”surreal,” he didn’t stand around awestruck.
”You have to kind of limit things down, know what the other guys are thinking and doing out there on the field,” he said. ”And then see ball, get ball, have fun and just fly around.”
Like Sutton and Smith-Schuster, running back James Conner’s indoctrination into the NFL has been slowed by various issues. The former Pitt star appears to be turning a corner. He ran for 99 yards last week against Atlanta and followed it up with 26 yards on four carries in limited action against the Colts.
Not being on the field every play has taken some getting used to, though Conner considers himself fully adjusted. He’s in a spirited battle with Knile Davis to be the primary backup whenever Le’Veon Bell decides to sign his franchise tender and show up for work.
Conner isn’t looking too far ahead. He’s likely to get some extended run in the preseason finale against Carolina on Thursday, then after that it will be spot duty and some work on special teams. It’s what rookies do. Pittsburgh relied heavily on rookies Artie Burns, Javon Hargrave and Sean Davis last fall on its way to an AFC North title. While Watt will be featured heavily, Smith-Schuster, Sutton and Conner figure to take on more secondary roles.
Considering the crooked path they were forced to take to this point, that’s fine. Better to be on the sideline in uniform and available than on the sideline in sweat pants unable to go.
”(The injury) is something you’ve got to put in the past and not think about, just building off momentum for myself and the rest of the guys out there on the field,” Sutton said. ”Just go out there and have no (regression) out there and be ready to go.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL