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JuJu Smith-Schuster makes Steelers even scarier heading into playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- We’ve grown used to the notion that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ January hopes rest on three offensive stars. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown are the big three -- the Killer B's -- and they all have to be on the field together before we know the things of which this group is truly capable.

But none of those guys was on the field Sunday, in Pittsburgh’s ultimately meaningless regular-season finale against Cleveland, which Pittsburgh won 28-24. And while there is no “B” in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s name, he put on a show in their absence and may make the Steelers’ offense even scarier than usual as 2018 dawns.

Running alongside fellow X factor receiver Martavis Bryant with backup Landry Jones at quarterback, Smith-Schuster tormented the Browns on a frigid day at Heinz Field. He had 127 yards and a touchdown on seven receptions in the first half and finished with 143 yards on nine catches. And when the winless Browns put a scare into the few frozen Steelers fans who showed up for this one by tying the game at 221 in the third quarter, Smith-Schuster ran the ensuing kickoff back 96 yards for a touchdown. He’s the first Steeler with a receiving touchdown and a kick-return touchdown in the same game since Gary Ballman (the original Killer B?) in 1963.

Electrifying, enthusiastic and just plain fun, Smith-Schuster has been at the center of this Steelers season almost all along. His emergence in the offense ruffled the feathers of Bryant, who didn’t see the 20-year-old rookie coming as a threat to his own post-suspension playoff time. Smith-Schuster got suspended for a game late in the season for hitting Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict too hard in the team’s ugly victory over Cincinnati. His search for his lost bike and his quest for his driver’s license, both successful, captivated the football-watching public. There’s something about Smith-Schuster that feels irresistible (except, I guess, to Bryant), and his emergence as a fresh face in this uber-familiar Steelers lineup was unexpected.

But here he is, on the cusp of the playoffs, demanding attention from his quarterback and opposing defenses.

The Steelers hope Brown will be back from his calf injury in time for their playoff opener here in a couple of weeks. And they value the health of Roethlisberger and Bell enough that they made both inactive for this game, even though they still could have earned the AFC’s No. 1 seed with a win and a Patriots loss. At their best, the Steelers will rely on that tested trio on the road to what they hope is a seventh Super Bowl title.

But if you were here at Heinz Field on Sunday, there was no question who the star was. And once the big stars get back in the lineup, don’t think the people who call and run the Steelers’ plays are going to forget what JuJu Smith-Schuster has shown them these past couple of weeks. A new young star may have pushed his way into that Steelers pantheon at a critical time.