The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t ordinarily ask their rookies to play large roles unless it becomes necessary or their talent simply dictates it. Often enough, when they have a rookie playing a lot of snaps, there is not another very compelling option, or at least an opportunity presented itself in one way or another.
When it comes to third-round pick Diontae Johnson, he has not one, but two roles this season. Not only is he a core component of the passing game at wide receiver, in recent weeks, he has also become the full-time punt returner since Ryan Switzer’s injury.
And he’s already paid dividends, of course, with an 85-yard touchdowns on a punt return early against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. It was the team’s first punt return score since 2015, and the first special teams return score since 2017.
“He showed in Arizona that he’s a threat”, said special teams coordinator Danny Smith, adding, “hopefully he can keep it up”. It was also the second-longest punt return in team history, if I recall reading my facts correctly after the game.
Though he is the full-time punt returner now, Johnson was still being worked in on returns here and there at various portions of the season, even if Switzer was still the primary, albeit ineffective, returner. Smith explained why Johnson wasn’t playing there more earlier in the year.
“He wasn’t as secure as we wanted him to be and it showed sometimes in a practice setting”, he said. “Stuff like that, it does impede your progress a little bit. It affects you mentally, and you know when you’re affected mentally in this game it affects your whole game”.
I will just ever so briefly remind that Alex Kozora several weeks ago pointed out some of the notable issues that Johnson was having fielding punt returns, which were also evident in his college tape, and was the reason Smith just cited above that he wasn’t trusted more on returns earlier. He has improved his technique since then, and even cited that after the Cardinals game as a credit to allowing him to have that big return.
As special teams coordinator, Smith admitted that he wasn’t thrilled about Johnson playing such a big role offensively so early on in his career. “But it is reality”, he added, “and you’ve got to live with those things”.
“It was a matter of just getting comfortable with him and him getting comfortable in a dual role”, he went on. “We’re making progress”.