2019 South Side Questions: Can Diontae Johnson Give Steelers A Good Punt Return Game?

Diontae Johnson Touchdown

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now into the offseason, following a year in which they had high hopes for Super Bowl success, but ultimately fell short of even reaching the postseason at 8-8. It was a tumultuous season, both on the field and within the roster, and the months to follow figure to have some drama as well, especially in light of the team’s failure to improve upon the year before.

The team made some bold moves over the course of the past year, and some areas of the roster look quite a bit different than they did a year ago, or even at the start of the regular season. Whether due to injuries or otherwise, a lot has transpired, and we’re left to wonder how much more will change prior to September.

How will Ben Roethlisberger’s rehab progress as he winds toward recovery from an elbow injury that cost him almost the entire season? What about some of the key young players, some of whom have already impressed, others still needing quite a bit of growth? Will there be changes to the coaching staff? The front office? Who will they not retain in free agency, and whom might they bring in?

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Will Diontae Johnson actually allow the Steelers to have a good punt return game again?

Back in Week 14, rookie Diontae Johnson flashed something that we haven’t seen on a punt return in years: playmaking ability. Ryan Switzer hasn’t given us any indications of that. It’s far from guaranteed he will even be back in Pittsburgh in 2020. But even Antonio Brown’s last couple of years on the job were at least partially phoned in.

Brown was a great punt returner for a few years, no doubt. He did score four touchdowns on punt returns, after all. In 2013, he had five punt returns go for 40-plus yards, averaging 12.8 yards per punt return that year.

That was on 32 returns. This year, Johnson returned a whopping 20 punts. Of course, he wasn’t doing it all year long. But thanks primarily due to his 85-yard touchdown punt return, he led the league with not only the longest punt return of the season, but also posted the highest average, 12.4 yards per return.

He only averaged 8.6 yards on his 19 other punt returns, however. His only return of 20 or more yards was the 85-yard touchdown. We shouldn’t let one outlier bias the entire results.

But there’s no doubt that he has shown flashes of talent in this role. And he did it as a rookie. The question is, will we see him develop into a dangerous return man, the way Brown once was?

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