As has been a theme so far throughout this still-young season, there were not many bright spots in today’s game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but at the very least, we are beginning to see the emergence of another young wide receiver. Not James Washington, but rookie Diontae Johnson, the 66th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Toledo product scored the first points of his career in the second half, a 39-yard touchdown from Mason Rudolph, beating Jason Verrett down the left sideline after the replacement cornerback was caught peeking in the backfield.
It was one of three receptions on the day for a total of 52 yards, the second-most on the team behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, how had 81 yards…thanks to a 76-yard catch-and-run score that was the beneficiary of the safety taking a bad closing angle from up ahead of the play.
Leading into the game, we learned from Johnson himself that the Steelers intended to put him in the starting lineup, along with Smith-Schuster and Washington, and unless something changes, it appears that their plan going forward is to work with these three—their wide receivers drafted early in the past three years—working with the starting offense.
The shift was made following struggles from Donte Moncrief through the first two games, who dropped four passes and caught just three of 11 targets for a whopping seven yards. He was not simply demoted leading into this game but made an inactive. He is still nursing an injured finger suffered early in training camp, but has told reporters not to use that as an excuse for his performance.
That and his subsequent struggles have opened the door for Johnson, who likely has the skill set to be the number two on this team opposite Smith-Schuster in the long run as he continues to develop in his transition from a non-Power 5 college player to a professional at the highest level of the game.
While we still continue to see some hands issues that have always been on his tape—there was perhaps a pass today that he could have caught among his three incomplete targets, and he had a drop last week—we also see the nuances that show him to be one of the few players who can create their own space.
Aside from his 39-yard touchdown, he also basically fabricated an eight-yard reception on third and seven, Rudolph getting him the ball in the flat well short of the chains, but he made two defenders miss in order to get the first-down yardage.
Given the circumstances of the season, we should have plenty of time and opportunities to watch Johnson develop this season. It’s not like there appears to be much of anything to lose to do otherwise.