The last time the Pittsburgh Steelers had a special teams return for a touchdown was in the season finale of the 2017 season, when a rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster took a kick back for a score. The last time the Steelers had a punt return touchdown was in December of 2015, accomplished by Antonio Brown.
They haven’t seen a rookie take one to the house on a punt return since first-round pick Santonio Holmes did it in December of 2006. I guess there’s something about December that’s good for returns, because Diontae Johnson became the latest to check all these boxes last night.
Johnson entered his rookie season, as a third-round pick out of Toledo, as the number two option on the punt return behind Ryan Switzer. Johnson only had a handful of shots at the return before Switzer suffered an injury a few weeks ago that left him on the Reserve/Injured List.
While Johnson had some success as a return man in college, he also came with some technique issues that raised some concerns, and he exhibited those concerns, even putting a ball or two on the ground, and having several shaky reps fielding the ball.
This was something that Alex Kozora called attention to a few weeks ago, which drew a negative response from the rookie, though in truth, that’s just something that comes with the territory. These professional athletes don’t need to hear it from us when they’re hearing it from their coaches and are just trying to get better.
While he didn’t care for our critiques, he nonetheless made some necessary adjustments over the course of the past couple of games, with special teams coordinator Danny Smith drilling him. After housing one from 85 yards last night, he talked about it after the game, and credited these improvements.
“Danny’s been telling me I’m gonna get one, I’m gonna get one, each week, and I’m telling him, ‘I got you’”, he said. “I’ve been harping on myself”, he added, about getting it right, “catching the ball, staying in front, and just focusing on my little techniques, and it sure paid off today”.
One of the things that scouting reports have a great deal of difficulty taking into account is the ability for individuals to overcome their weaknesses. It’s simply too hard to predict who will be capable of doing so and who will live up to the negatives.
While we’ve seen a lot of the negatives show up for Johnson during his rookie season, we’ve also seen the efforts to improve them as the season has evolved, with the proper coaching and motivation. That’s a good sign for the future, and perhaps for the punt return game as well.