Early in the season, it was quickly becoming apparently that rookie third-round wide receiver Diontae Johnson was emerging as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ number two target. It may still end up that way in the long run, but with him slowing down and second-year James Washington stepping up, the man out of Toledo has been taking a bit more of a back seat.
At least as much as that has been possible with JuJu Smith-Schuster on the sidelines.
Over the past five weeks, Johnson has only had one game in which he has caught more than three passes or put up 30 or more yards. Against the Los Angeles Rams, he caught four passes for 64 yards, but he was typically held well under those marks otherwise.
He has 11 receptions on 23 targets for 127 yards and no scores during that five-game span. He caught just one pass on five targets on Sunday, including a dropped pass, but the one he did catch was a big third-down conversion late in the game for 14 yards.
Said Washington, “the body is not used to it”, via Chris Adamski. He obviously just went through his rookie season a year ago, so it’s fresh. Johnson has been dealing with a variety of injuries going all the way to rookie minicamp. “This is when he has got to really lock in on the therapy side and make sure his body is ready to go”.
Thee-plus weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson took an ugly shot to the head on an overthrown deep ball. Safety Damarious Randall came in from center field and made helmet-to-helmet contact, getting ejected from the game. Randall was mysteriously inactive for the rematch. Johnson suffered a concussion and a laceration from the hit jarring his helmet loose.
Given that Smith-Schuster is sidelined for yet another game, and it’s not exactly clear when he’ll be back, it goes without saying that there will still come a time this season where the rookie is counted upon to step up and make some plays.
While head coach Mike Tomlin said that he’ll have gas left in the tank for December, he has also talked about managing the rookie over the course of the season, trying not to put too much on his plate, though he now has had to take over the punt return job as well.
“I’ve approached this season that I am just trying to do whatever I can, whatever is asked of me, and make it a point to learn as much as I can”, Johnson told Adamski. “Apply whatever I can by picking people’s brains (and taking it) onto the field in games”.
Even in the games in which he has struggled, he still manages to make one or two plays to show what he can be. That may be the difference today.