While it’s fair to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers offense took a major step backwards—that’s virtually inevitable when you lose your best wide receiver, your quarterback is lost for most of the year, and your starting running back misses half the season as well—there is reason for optimism as far as the wide receiver position goes.
The team is still expected to make further additions to the group this offseason, likely with yet another Day Two wide receiver or thereabouts, but the nucleus of the position is centered around a trio of 23-year-olds in JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson, drafted in this order between 2017 and 2019 within selections 60 through 66.
Smith-Schuster is the youngest and yet also most veteran of the three, but injuries kept him sidelined or ineffective for much of the year. Washington ended up leading the team in receiving yards, while Johnson finished strong as well, leading in both receptions and receiving touchdowns.
Washington spoke with Missi Matthews for an interview on the team’s website, and she asked him about Johnson, who was an early third-round pick during the 2019 NFL Draft, and who ended up playing a much bigger role than was expected going into the year—something Johnson himself admitted.
“He definitely set himself up nice”, Washington said of the rookie as he heads into his second season in the NFL. “He’s a quick, agile guy, and you better make sure you tackle him, because if not he’s running down the sideline on you. He’s hungry, all the time, he’s always wanting to be better than the day before”.
“Just having that guy in the room, you never know what’s gonna happen with him because he’s always gonna surprise you”, he added of his slightly younger teammate. “We’re happy to have him in the receiver room. He’s like our little brother. He means a lot to us”.
Smith-Schuster, going into year four, is the young leader of the group, but with Washington going into year three now with some confidence and Johnson coming off of a strong rookie season, they should forge a strong trio as Ben Roethlisberger returns from injury.
One would hope that they will also have the benefit of some stability at the wide receiver coach position. When Smith-Schuster entered the league, Richard Mann was on the cusp of retirement. He was replaced by Darryl Drake in 2018, who passed away suddenly shortly before the start of the 2019 season.
Ray Sherman, who had been in attendance at training camp as an observer and was already semi-retired, filled in as interim coach for the position group. This offseason, the Steelers hired Ike Hilliard, a former wide receiver who had over a decade of experience coaching the position, having just finished a six-year stint in Washington. Hilliard was not retained with the regime change taking place there under Ron Rivera.