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JuJu Smith-Schuster flashed midseason form vs. Denver — a good sign as playoffs approach

The sixth-year wide receiver was rolling before his mid-year concussion. Sunday’s performance might have shown he’s back.

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster was amid his finest stretch as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs when injury struck.

In the three games against Buffalo, San Francisco and Tennessee, he became Patrick Mahomes' go-to pass-catcher beyond tight end Travis Kelce, registering 22 catches on 25 targets for 325 yards and two touchdowns. Then the Jacksonville Jaguars came to town.

With the Chiefs leading 14-0 in the second quarter of the club's Week 10 game, Smith-Schuster lined up to Mahomes' left and ran an out to the left sideline.

Mahomes connected with Smith-Schuster, but his helmet was quickly met by the left shoulder of Jaguars safety Andre Cisco. The way that the wide receiver curled up on the ground clearly indicated he was concussed.

Smith-Schuster would miss the Chiefs' Week 11 game against the Los Angeles Chargers before returning for Week 12 against the Los Angeles Rams. Head coach Andy Reid limited Smith-Schuster in his comeback game, in which he played just 38% of the offensive snaps.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

"Physically, I feel fine, normal," he said in the locker room on Thursday. "Everything has been going so well as far as getting into the game plan. But I would say (I think it was the Rams game), I kind of started off [with] not a lot of plays, kind of slow — and then pretty much ended up back into the groove of getting back out there [and] running around."

Smith-Schuster was candid about needing time to feel like himself again during his first two games back. His reps increased in the second game against the Cincinnati Bengals. He had similar stat lines in each: three catches for 30-something yards.

"I would say this," started Smith-Schuster, "with this offense being so fast — and with the cardio — I feel like you taking that week off is like a minor setback but nothing crazy, just because this offense [requires] keeping that cardio up, and not being able to do too much, having a concussion, but like I said, I'm back into the swing of things."

That was clear with his 11-target, nine-catch reemergence against the Denver Broncos. It was his highest catch total since Week 9 against the Tennessee Titans, the last game before his concussion. Smith-Schuster had 74 yards — and was the recipient of a critical, broken-play touchdown that regained the Chiefs' momentum against the division foe.

"He just stayed alive," said Mahomes of the play when he spoke on Wednesday. "He's a guy that's going to attract people, so he can get Travis [Kelce] open and obviously, they dropped right into where we wanted to throw the football. So instead of just running off and letting the play end, he just kept working. You can see it — I think from the back end zone view of [it] — he's just moving side to side, just trying to find a way to give me a spot to throw the football. So he got open [and] I was able to get him the ball in a big moment. It's going to take that. Not every play's going to be perfect; we're going to have to be able to make some plays whenever the play call isn't perfect. I thought he did a great job of continuing to work and not giving up on it."

Smith-Schuster explained his vantage point of the critical score at his locker on Thursday.

"Yeah. It's kind of crazy to me," he said. "For me, that play, all I saw was Pat Mahomes just get swallowed up. All I saw was his hand come out, and then boom. He just disappeared because he was getting sandwiched by these defenders. Making a play like that? It's cool. It's always hype.

"[You have to] just keep running, man. Never give up on a play. You never know. You see it week after week. He does it every week."

Throughout the season, Smith-Schuster has learned that both the offense and overall mentality of the team are different in Kansas City than they were in Pittsburgh, where he spent the first five years of his career.

"We're a pass-first offense," said Smith-Schuster. "That's what I love here. Can't take away from the run game — but at the same time, being where I came from, it's also nice to come here... When you have a head coach who's offensive-minded, it's a different side of you versus a head coach who's defensive-minded (Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin). I've been on the side where he's defensive-minded — and we stopped [them] and won a lot of games with our defense. It's nice to come here with an offensive-minded head coach."

He certainly has that in Andy Reid.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Tennessee Titans Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

"We were hoping that he could kind of counter Kelce – and this offense is best when you can kind of do that," said Reid on Wednesday, recalling why the Chiefs signed the receiver. "We had Sammy [Watkins], and then [Byron] Pringle developed into that as we went. And that's when it rolls the best. And so, he's come in and [has] done that — and does a nice job with it. He's got a great feel for the game. He's got [a] great feel in space."

Reid continued.

"Then he's really tough to bring down — and I kind of forgot about that part," added the head coach, now smiling. "After he gets that ball in his hands, man, you try to hit him in his lower body, he can shuck it off like a running back. That's special to have that."

When healthy and feeling good, Smith-Schuster has shown himself to be the physical, possession-style chain-mover the Chiefs were seeking in free agency. Through 14 games, he has 61 catches for 762 yards — and by averaging 60 yards a game the rest of the way, he will break 1,000.

There’s no doubt that his injury slowed him down in 2022 — but Sunday may have been the first sign that he's back to his mid-season best.

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