The Pittsburgh Steelers have on their roster a wide receiver who made the Pro Bowl in 2018 after catching 111 passes, which is the second-most anybody not named Antonio Brown has ever caught in the history of the franchise.
But their leader in receptions through six games in 2019 is running back James Conner. With 26. JuJu Smith-Schuster, who had one catch for seven yards in his first game since fumbling in overtime and leading to a loss to the Baltimore Ravens, has 25 receptions on the year.
The wide receiver group as a whole has been a disappointment so far this season, even relative to the fact that Ben Roethlisberger has been gone for most of the season. Rookie third-round pick Diontae Johnson has effectively become the number two receiver, with 20 receptions on the season for 212 yards and two touchdowns. He is third behind Smith-Schuster and Conner in the first two categories, and nobody else has more than two touchdown receptions yet. Conner, Smith-Schuster, and Vance McDonald all have two.
James Washington has nine receptions with no scores, albeit for 140 yards. Ryan Switzer has eight receptions for 27 yards, averaging 3.4 yards per reception. That’s a figure that would get a running back cut. Johnny Holton hasn’t caught a pass. Donte Moncrief has caught one that mattered, and dropped four or five that did, on 18 total targets.
Mike Tomlin was asked about the state of the wide receiver room and what the issues are right now, and how much of it could be attributed to other factors, like the instability at the quarterback position and the subsequent priorities in playcalling.
“It’s a little bit of all of the above”, he told Bob Pompeani. “We’ve got some inexperienced guys in that room doing things that inexperienced guys do. As we push into game seven and beyond, that stuff has to disappear”.
There’s no doubt that he is talking especially about Johnson and Washington, the rookie and the second-year guy who were high draft picks. “It’s okay to openly challenge some of these young people to make significant steps and provide consistent, positive, winning performances”, he said. “We’re in the process of doing that, and we’re optimistic about the growth and development of some of those guys”.
“But also, you’ve got to acknowledge that we through six games have played three different quarterbacks, and there’s something that comes with that”, he went on. “We’re not looking to hide behind anything or make excuses, they’ve got to be better, we’ve all collectively got to be better. We’ve got to be better at the quarterback position. We’ve got to be better from a coach perspective in terms of positions that we put them in and the things that we ask them to do. We’ve all got to grow and grow extremely quickly, because the standard of expectation is what it is”.
The Steelers have had the bye week to both get healthy and figure out solutions to the problems in their passing game. They should have a favorable opponent against whom to test out their adjustments in the Miami Dolphins, who have injuries in the secondary in addition to their general issues.