I posed the question, earlier in the week, if anybody other than James Washington would step up today in JuJu Smith-Schuster’s continued absence. While Washington himself had a fine game—which has to factor in multiple drawn defensive pass interference calls—the star of the day for the Pittsburgh Steelers was clearly the rookie.
Not Devlin Hodges, who had another good outing, but third-round wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who might have had the best game of his young career. After getting things started with an 85-yard punt return touchdown, he proceeded to add to the offense, catching six passes on eight targets for 60 yards, including some big plays, among them a red zone touchdown.
That was his fourth receiving touchdown of the season, which broke a four-way tie for the team lead between himself, Smith-Schuster, Washington, and Vance McDonald. But aside from his work in the receiver game—which included a spectacular reverse-field catch-and-run of 18 yards to set up his two-yard touchdown—he also added a 16-yard carry on an end around.
So he contributed in the passing game, the running game, and the return game, all in significant ways, while seeing the most targets of the game. Just a sidebar, but it’s remarkable that nobody else Hodges targeted on the day failed to catch all of the passes that went in their direction. I’ll have more on that in a later article.
In recent weeks, the man out of Toledo had not been producing up to expectations. Last week, he only caught one of five targets, including a dropped pass, though that one catch was a key third-down conversion for 14 yards. He had been held to three or fewer receptions for under 30 yards in almost every game for the past month and a half before posting a season-high six catches today.
Adding in Deon Cain, the offense is starting to look as though it might actually be in solid shape when Smith-Schuster returns—hoping that he gets back sooner rather than later. But the offense is making do with what it has for now, while it needs to, and so far that has been enough, notching three wins in the three games their ‘star’ receiver has missed.
That had largely been thanks to the contributions of Washington, but this day clearly belonged to Johnson, who totaled 163 all-purpose yards between his receptions, carries, and punt returns, as well as both of the Steelers’ touchdowns.