Steelers Rookies Getting Thrown Into The Fire

Diontae Johnson doesn’t carry the same first round pedigree as Terrell Edmunds. But he finds himself in a very similar situation this year.

Johnson has dominated the wide receiver snap count since Week Two. Here are his weekly snaps and percentages:

Week 3 – 42 snaps (79%)
Week 4 – 37 snaps (67%)
Week 5 – 53 snaps (91%)
Week 6 – 41 snaps (69%)

Make no mistake, that is far more than anything the team wanted. Johnson’s playing well for the position he’s in but the increase in snaps weren’t traditionally earned. It was out of necessity once the team found out Donte Moncrief couldn’t catch a cold.

Edmunds walked a similar path in 2018. Morgan Burnett’s recurring, nagging injuries opened the door well before Edmunds was ready for an every down gig. But the Steelers didn’t have much of a choice and rolled with the punches. He admitted as much in the offseason.

“In the moment it’s like, ‘we’re here, we’ve got to do it because you’re the next man up”, he said in May. “You’ve got to step up, you’ve got to go in and they don’t expect a downfall from anybody’s play. You’ve got to put the big-boy pants on and then go out and help the team the best way you can.”

I bet Johnson will say the same once his rookie campaign finishes up.

Heading into the year, it felt like Devin Bush was the only obvious candidate to carve out a role. These six weeks have proven that idea wrong. Johnson is now a starting receiver and beneficiary of the attention JuJu Smith-Schuster receives. Benny Snell is the backup running back for the next couple weeks and played more special teams snaps than even I anticipated, fourth most on the team, in part due to Roosevelt Nix’s Week 1 knee injury. Zach Gentry has teetered on that #2 tight end role, Ulysees Gilbert III leads the entire team in special teams snaps, and Isaiah Buggs could get a helmet after Stephon Tuitt was lost for the year.

Essentially, the only three rookies who either haven’t logged much time and aren’t in line to potentially see more are Justin Layne and the two draft picks who didn’t make the 53; Sutton Smith and Derwin Gray.

It isn’t ideal but props to the rookies as a class. Devin Bush is making a strong case for Defensive Rookie of the Year, Johnson is stepping up, and Snell has played like the team expected and then some. It will also speed up their progression heading into next year. They’ll have game reps under their belt and can make the “jump” Mike Tomlin’s always talking about. Being in the league helps players grow and mature but nothing replicates in-game reps.

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