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 continue to operate as the Steelers’ punt returner?
We all know by now that, generally speaking, teams prefer to take players off of special teams units as their role on offense or defense increases. Antonio Brown stayed on as punt returner longer than most stars do, in part because he wanted to do it and in part because they didn’t have other options—and they did try multiple times.
Now, Diontae Johnson is entering his second season, during which he will be no worse than the number three receiver, and potentially even the player who will get the most targets in the passing game. He led the team in targets and receptions last season, even if JuJu Smith-Schuster was injured for a while.
The point is, he’s going to have a bigger role on offense. So what will that mean for special teams? After Smith-Schuster took on a bigger role on offense in 2018 as a full-time starter, he was taken off the kick return job, with Ryan Switzer ultimately handling it.
Switzer is still here, and he was also the punt returner. Of course, many think he shouldn’t be on the team. That doesn’t mean he won’t be. It also doesn’t mean somebody else can’t be the punt returner. But in a limited offseason, it will also be difficult to explore the alternatives. If I were required to make a bet, I would put money down on him remaining in the role.