The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Diontae Johnson will play 10 or more snaps in the season opener.
Explanation: Johnson, the Steelers’ second pick in the draft behind Devin Bush, has been touted as a key future part of the Steelers’ offense, his route-running said to be NFL-ready. He has made some nifty plays, but also missed some balls, and had dealt with injuries that have cost him valuable playing time. Many wondered, if the Steelers carried six wide receivers, which most assumed they would, whether or not Johnson would even dress during the early portions of the season.
Yes, he will, and here’s why: the Steelers are going to run four- and five-receiver sets in an up-tempo offense and that’s going to rely on the wide receivers rotating. Johnson is going to have to play. I believe last season the team ran about 15 snaps out of five-receiver sets against the New England Patriots because they felt that was the best way to attack their defense.
It still is, even if they may have lost a bit of the element of surprise, but a player like Johnson who excels in winning one-on-one matchups is a good weapon to have in a spread offensive gameplan such as that. whatever physical or mental limitations he might have at the beginning of the season can be mitigated by limiting his responsibilities. It’s not like he can’t catch the football.
While the Steelers did heavily use five-receiver sets against the Patriots last year, as Mike Tomlin said during his press conference, the Patriots aren’t a team you’re going to fool a lot, and after you do, you better come up with something else to fool them with. He was talking about the offense, but it applies to the defense as well.
I expect Vance McDonald and Jaylen Samuels to play crucial roles on Sunday in New England, and the base 11 personnel package will be used extensively. James Washington is effectively the number four receiver, so he’s going to be the one looking for any additional reps the starters don’t get. Johnson’s time will come, but it’s not in the opener on the road against one of the most intelligent and savvy secondaries in the NFL.