The late Darryl Drake was extremely high on Diontae Johnson. He had a great influence in drawing the Pittsburgh Steelers’ attention to the MAC wide receiver out of Toledo. They probably had a much higher grade on him than the vast majority of scouting departments around the league, selecting him with the 66th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft—just four spots higher than they’d taken JuJu Smith-Schuster two years ago.
While he has had his rookie moments, however, the young man who is technically Smith-Schuster’s senior by age is quickly turning into an integral contributor for a rising Steelers offense, of which he is very much a part.
Johnson had perhaps his biggest game of his young career last night against the Miami Dolphins, catching five passes for 84 yards, both career-highs, and scoring his third touchdown of the season on a career-long 45-yard score.
“He’s a guy that’s getting better every week”, head coach Mike Tomlin said of him after last night’s game. “He’s also a guy that we have to manage in terms of exposure and snaps. He’s a young guy, the wear and tear and all of that stuff, he’s getting better. The key is to keep him fluidly moving upward, and he’s done that. We don’t need any steps backwards. He’s gaining experience and making some plays for us”.
The Steelers had intended to enter this season with Donte Moncrief as their number two receiver across from Smith-Schuster, following Antonio Brown’s acrimonious exit from Pittsburgh. But that plan went awry by the second half of the second game, and suddenly Johnson was thrust into a much bigger role, with second-year James Washington also failing to grab the baton and run with it.
Through seven games, Johnson now has 25 receptions on the season for 296 yards and three touchdowns. In James Washington’s career, over 20 games played, he has 26 receptions for 378 yards and one touchdown, which he scored on a busted play in the second game of his career.
That’s not an entirely fair comparison, because the truth is that the majority of the targets Washington has gotten over the course of his career have not been catchable, but regardless, it seems that Johnson is well on his way toward establishing himself as the team’s number two receiver.
At the same time, the Steelers and Tomlin are not going to force the issue and put more on his plate than he can handle. They are still, as he said, managing his snap count and making sure that he is equipped to handle what they ask of him before they actually send him out there to do it.
With a now young and growing offense at the skill positions, that is a sound approach to take. Johnson is supposed to be a productive player for years to come, and is growing into his role organically. Just allow that to unfold rather than force it needlessly.