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Coaches, Teammates ‘Encouraged’ By Diontae Johnson’s Response to Benching

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The Steelers have had a big problem with drops the last few weeks, and second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson has taken the brunt of the criticism launched at that unit for the issues.

Johnson has 12 drops this season, which is the most on the team and as many as second- and third-place Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool combined. He’s also dropped the largest percentage of his passes among the Pittsburgh receivers, with Johnson unable to secure 10.6% of his 113 targets. Ebron is once again second, dropping 8.4% of his.

After two weeks of drops around the receiving corps being an issue for the Pittsburgh offense, head coach Mike Tomlin made a public threat leading up to the team’s Week 14 game at Buffalo: catch the ball or someone else will.

In the first quarter against the Bills, Johnson dropped two more passes and was subsequently benched for the rest of the first half.

It’s been a frustrating turn of events for the young receiver, who showed so much promise in his rookie season out of Toledo, but has seen his drops increase, and his catch percentage and yards per target decrease despite a larger role in the offense.

Johnson eventually returned to the game in the second half. In the first half, he had four targets and one catch for 12 yards. In the second, he was targeted three more times and caught them all for an additional 28 yards.

It wasn’t a monster half statistically for the young receiver, but according to the other members of the offense, it was a step in the right direction.

“Diontae, he wants to win, and he wants to do things right,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. “I patted him on the ass before he went in. Probably shouldn’t say it like that, but on the way in, I said. ‘Hey man, we are going to be OK. Get yourself ready because you are going to start the second half and let’s go.’

“He is more than capable. He is an awesome guy with the football in his hand. I just think from whether concentration, or whether it’s maybe young guys not practicing leads to some of this. I don’t know. But I know one thing, he had a hell of a practice [Wednesday], and I couldn’t have been more proud of him. I think as we move forward, I think you will see a real consistent Diontae.”

The Steelers need that consistency from him. As the team has leaned on its short passing game this season, part of the goal is to “throw it short and run long,” Fichtner explained. But that all falls apart when the receivers don’t catch the ball.

“I was encouraged by the second half,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I thought he came out and made some plays and showed some physicality in some of those catches, putting his head down and trying to get his yards and stuff like that. I was encouraged by his bounce back, really proud of him.”

Johnson dropped just 6.5% of his passes last season, so he’s clearly capable of securing the ball at higher level than he has so far this season.

“I thought [Diontae Johnson] responded appropriately,” Tomlin said. “He didn’t pout. He waited for his next opportunity, and when his next opportunity came, he was productive. We will move forward.”

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame Selector Bill Polian Makes Case for Former Steelers Scout Bill Nunn

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With the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee meeting Tuesday to determine the next group legends to be enshrined, Hall of Famer and former general manager Bill Polian made the case for Pittsburgh Steelers scout Bill Nunn.

In his presentation, Polian especially highlighted Nunn’s impact as a revolutionary in the scouting process targeting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Nunn’s vital scouting these underrepresented players and institutions proved vital in crafting the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s.

“He was the authority, while working for the (Pittsburgh) Courier, on HBCU football. He might well have been termed the Scout-in-Chief of HBCU football,” Polian said. “Bill Nunn helped create one of the greatest teams of all time.”

A Pittsburgh native, Nunn attended Westinghouse high school and West Virginia State College before embarking on a journalism career with the Pittsburgh Courier. Eventually becoming the managing editor of the paper, Nunn gained notoriety for his black college All-American teams, highlighting relatively unknown players at HBCUs.

Nunn’s expertise translated to his career with the Steelers, where his scouting led the organization to draft a number of legends form HBCUs, including L.C. Greenwood, Mel Blount, Ernie Holmes, John Stallworth and Donnie Shell.

Nunn would become the first Steelers nominated as a contributor if selected. Executives Art and Dan Rooney were inducted prior to the designation in 1964 and 2000, respectively.

The Class of 2021 will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio on Aug. 8, 2021.

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Steelers

Steelers WR Chase Claypool Named to PFWA NFL All-Rookie Team

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Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool has been named to the 2020 Pro Football Writers of America NFL All-Rookie team.

Claypool was honored along with Minnesota Vikings wideout Justin Jefferson as the top 2020 rookies at the position. 

The Notre Dame product caught 62 passes for 873 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He also rushed for a pair of scores, tying Louis Lipps for the most touchdowns scored by a Steelers rookie with 11 total.

Claypool was the 11th wide receiver selected in the 2020 NFL Draft when the Steelers took him with the 49th overall selection. 

Claypool previously won the Joe Greene Great Performance Award as the Steelers’ rookie of the year.

This is the second straight season the Steelers had a PFWA All-Rookie member, as linebacker Devin Bush was a part of the 2019 squad. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and linebacker T.J. Watt were awarded in 2017.

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NFL

Report: NFL Salary Cap Expected around $180 Million; Would Put Steelers $35 Million in Red

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The 2021 NFL salary cap is expected to be around $180 million, according to a report by Mike Florio of NBC Sports.

The salary cap is supposed to be fixed at 48% of the league’s revenue, according to the CBA signed between the league and the NFLPA that went into effect in March, with a possible increase if the NFL makes the expected decision to go to a 17-game schedule this fall.

But after the COVID-19 pandemic cost teams the vast majority of ticket sales in 2020, the league’s revenue has cratered heading into this offseason. The NFL and NFLPA agreed in their return-to-play negotiations that the 2021 salary cap will not fall below $175 million.

But that figure would represent a $23.2 million salary cap decrease instead of the typically expected $10 million or so increase, putting many teams, and the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular, in a salary cap crunch.

Florio said that some owners would like to see the impacts of the pandemic spread out over several years of cap impacts to reduce the immediate decrease, but that other owners see that as an interest-free loan to the players and balked.

While the most desirable of free agents will likely not be impacted, the number of teams in a cap crunch would likely cause middle-tier free agents to be unable to cash in on their expected paydays and low-tier free agents could be forced to re-sign for minimal, if any, raises.

The Steelers would need to trim approximately $35 million from their current salary obligations to be compliant with a $180 million cap, according to salary cap analysis from F.S. Fisher of Steelers Now.

While the $5 million in extra room would be helpful, it would not change the fundamental approach the Steelers will have to take this offseason of restructuring, negotiating pay cuts or releasing players already under contract for 2021.

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