The Pittsburgh Steelers have not been immune to hype this year, but that is a natural response when you have a team with one of the best defenses in the league and Pro Bowl skill position players, and then you add a franchise quarterback into the mix. Which is what they’re doing with Ben Roethlisberger returning from a season-ending elbow injury in Week Two last year.
It’s not just the quarterback driving the optimism about a return to relevance for the offense, though. It’s also the young players who are growing and stepping up, particularly Diontae Johnson, who was a third-round pick last season and led the team in receptions and receiving touchdowns, and was second in receiving yards behind James Washington.
It’s worth remembering that Johnson wasn’t supposed to play a prominent role last season, as a player coming out of the MAC. JuJu Smith-Schuster was coming off a great year in 2018, ready to step into the number one role, and Donte Moncrief was signed in free agency to be the number two. Washington was there to fill in most of the gaps.
Circumstances allowed for Johnson to play pretty often, however, and he produced a fair bit when given the chance. That’s why many are excited to see what he can do in his second season, and with much better play from the quarterback position. recently, George Chahrouri of Pro Football Focus chose him as one of four young players ready to make a leap this season, speaking to Tom Pelissero for NFL Network.
“When JuJu Smith-Schuster went down and got hurt at the end of the year, Diontae Johnson over the last four weeks was tremendous, earning the sixth-highest PFF grade over that spanv”, he said. “Over the course of the year, he forced 18 missed tackles, which was tied for the most. Great route runner, makes people miss after the catch”.
“Now this year, he goes with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, hopefully”, he added. “That’s a massive upgrade at quarterback. JuJu, healthy on the other side, so he should get some favorable matchups against inferior corners. I could see him really ascending into that top tier of wide receivers this year”.
That’s high praise, but I think a lot of Steelers fans would agree with the possibility—perhaps especially those who have soured rapidly on Smith-Schuster, even if he is younger and significantly more accomplished.
The Steelers will need both of them to play at a high level this year. As good as the defense may be, the offense still has to produce, and that also includes Washington, tight ends Eric Ebron and Vance McDonald, and the backfield, led by James Conner.