The Pittsburgh Steelers have great talent on defense, and that should lend itself to having at least a competent, quality unit in 2020. But they know that they can’t rely on the defense only, and will need the offense to show much more life than that group was able to exhibit last year while ravaged by injuries.
One of the lone bright spots was Diontae Johnson, the rookie wide receiver out of Toledo, who recorded 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns in spite of the fact that he caught passes almost exclusively from backups, including their number four quarterback during the preseason, Devlin Hodges.
Charles McDonald of the New York Daily News sees in the young man the makings of what he calls the next great Steelers receiver, citing such names as Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders (though his greatest success came in Denver), and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is only two years ahead of Johnson himself.
“Any player that showed life in that offense should be labeled a hero”, he wrote about Johnson providing a spark to a Steelers defense that often looked as though it couldn’t get out of its own way, let alone get past an opposing defense.
“Johnson was the only Steelers receiver that had a chance to win with precision route running against outside cornerbacks”, he added. “Even though he was playing next to star receiver Juju Smith-Schuster, he often looked like the Steelers’ most talented receiver. Pittsburgh really leaned on him to close the season; Johnson averaged 64.3 receiving yards over the final four games of the season”.
And that was after he talked about hitting a rookie wall. And all the while, he was nursing a groin injury that required surgery in the offseason. Since then, he has already added eight-plus pounds of muscle in his aim toward improving his strength and durability.
In spite of the fact that he played in an offense that provided few opportunities for yards after the catch, he still managed 5.4 such yards per reception, ranking high in the middle third of eligible wide receivers. He tied for the league lead in the most forced missed tackles on receptions as well, part of the reason he gained as many yards after the catch as he did.
With Smith-Schuster already on the roster, there are those who are wondering of it’s Johnson who will emerge in the long run as the top wide receiver, not dissimilar to the discussions had about Wallace and Brown early on.
Both have their strengths and weaknesses. Arguably, Johnson’s greatest strength—that is, getting open—is the best a wide receiver could have.