The Pittsburgh Steelers and everyone around them knew that there were significant changes coming to their offense after they were forced to trade Antonio Brown because the parasite that infected his mustache and turned it blonde made him lose all sense of decency and composure.
When you lose a player widely considered to be among the very best in the game, you are not going to replace him with one player, so it was obvious it would be a multi-tiered approach. Combined with the expected second-year growth from James Washington, the team was also expected to address wide receiver in both free agency and the draft.
They signed Donte Moncrief in free agency and immediately installed him into the starting lineup, with Washington also working with the first-team offense during the offseason. Rookie third-round pick Diontae Johnson spent a lot of his offseason limited to individual drills due to nagging injuries.
Even outside of that, he was not anticipating having the sort of role that would develop for him in 2019, which saw him record 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. The Toledo product, it was thought, would be supplemented into the offense here and there during his rookie season.
“Coming in, I didn’t really expect” to be a starter, he told Missi Matthews. “I was just coming in trying to do whatever I was told, and if I got in the game, just do my best. Obviously that wasn’t the case, so I had to step up, my role had changed. Just always be on my assignments and know what I’m doing at all times”.
Moncrief’s finger injury in training camp and subsequent struggles that quickly led to his benching more or less made it mandatory for the team to take the training wheels off of Johnson. They still looked for ways to limit his snap count and overall role here and there, but when you lead the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns, you’ve obviously played a significant amount.
One of the hidden parts of the transition from the college ranks to the NFL is learning how to be a professional and turning a sport into a job. That was an important part of Johnson’s rookie season. “Obviously I’m a starter now, so I’ve got to study film more, take notes”, he said. “In college I didn’t really do that much, but now it’s serious, so I had to do those things, and take care of my body more, make sure I was eating the right stuff. That played a big part in my success on the field as well”.
Johnson didn’t get to work much with Ben Roethlisberger during his rookie season, yet even he said at the end of last season that he was looking forward to the offense getting back to normal with their franchise quarterback under center. With Smith-Schuster, Washington, and Johnson leading the way, we should get a feel for how far this group can go as something approximating full power.