The last season was an interesting one for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even though they got off to a great start, winning their first 11 games and scoring at least 24 points in each of their first 10, among the league leaders in scoring overall, there was a sense of anxiety, that how they were winning would ultimately be unsustainable, and that things would need to change.
While the same man is under center, however, so much around Ben Roethlisberger has now changed. He has a very different offensive line, with a different line coach, and a new offensive coordinator. He has a new running back, and a new tight end, and of course, multiple new starters in front of him.
In theory, all of this, plus improved health, should contribute to his being a more dynamic passer, which should be good news for his wide receivers. In fact, Gil Brandt recently included two of them on a list of players who are guaranteed to play better this year, in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson.
“The Steelers have an established track record of developing non-first-rounders into top-flight receivers, but Johnson and Smith-Schuster put a kink in that pipeline with their lackluster 2020 seasons”, he wrote for NFL.com recently.
He noted, naturally, that Johnson led the NFL in drops, and docked Smith-Schuster for lacking the sort of game-breaking ability he displayed earlier in his career, highlighted by his pedestrian-for-a-tight-end 8.6 yards per reception as the offense became reliant upon the short passing game, without a complementary running game.
“While the remade offensive line will have to prove it’s up to snuff”, Brandt wrote, “the scheme being installed by new offensive coordinator Matt Canada and the addition of first-round running back Najee Harris should lead to more meaningful production from both Johnson and Smith-Schuster, especially if Johnson’s offseason work on hanging onto the ball takes”.
Both Smith-Schuster and Johnson have a lot of talent, but it’s also fair to say that neither have maximized their abilities over the course of the past two seasons. Not all of that is squarely on their shoulders—the quarterback situation over the last two years has left much to be desired—but they also have a part to play in doing better this year.
And yet it might be second-year Chase Claypool who exceeds both of them. The 49th overall pick last year caught 62 passes as a rookie for 873 yards with nine touchdowns, along with two rushing scores. He would add another two receiving touchdowns in the Steelers’ postseason loss.
The wide receiver group could really be the difference for Pittsburgh this year if they maximize their capabilities. You throw James Washington into the mix on top of that, and there’s an argument to be made that they have, at their peak, the best wide receiver room in the NFL, or at least close to it.