When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Diontae Johnson from Toldeo in the third round of the 2019 NFL draft, it felt as though the team was trying to send a message. An undersized, and under-recruited wide receiver from the MAC with good return skills and an ability to pluck the ball out of the air was drafted to replace that very skillset that blossomed Antonio Brown’s career with a pick that the team received in the Brown trade.
The Steelers are known for drafting talented wide receivers, but it was still going to be a stretch to see a rookie wide receiver fill into those shoes right away. Many assumed that with Brown out that the Steelers turn to JuJu Smith-Schuster in hi spot. However, Smith-Schuster has a completely different skillset than players such as Brown..
Smith-Schuster dominates the slot and the middle of the field. He finds space in the short passing game to make plays after the catch. Smith-Schuster can put up “Number One” receiver numbers, but he will not do it in the same manner to where he would step right in for Brown.
To move Smith-Schuster around the formation and find the right spots to get the football in his hands, the Steelers needed someone on the outside to hold the defensive backs’ attention away from creeping in. They still needed to replace Brown in his role and saw Johnson as the perfect fit to do it.
After an injury in training camp slowed down the progression of Johnson, the drops by Donte Moncrief left the Steelers with no choice but to throw the rookie who they regarded so highly onto the field. In his first career start, he caught a touchdown in a losing effort.
In his second career start, Johnson took the top off of the defense once again, this time to break open his first win in a Steelers uniform.
“The safety took a step towards Johnson, then saw JuJu and that detracted all of the attention,” quarterback Mason Rudolph said on his big touchdown reception. When a player such as Brown takes the up top attention, Smith-Schuster was able to shine underneath. Now, Smith-Schuster is opening up deep shots for his teammates.
You can see the deep safety turn toward Smith-Schuster from the end zone view of the play.
It was not just the deep shots, though. Johnson was 6-for-6 when targeted on the night, which included passes behind the line of scrimmage, over the middle of the field, and of course deep. Johnson was labeled as a do-everything outside threat coming out of Toldeo, and he has lived up to his tag to date.
While the Steelers have a great track record of drafting wide receivers, they also have a history of taking it slow. Timing and trust are so valuable in that position, and as the Steelers find gems in the middle rounds, that can come with a slow learning curve.
However, Johnson has been electric from the start. He made a few plays in the first two games, to ensure that he should be on the field. When comparing the first four games to other prominent receivers the Steelers have drafted, Johnson is well ahead of that curve.
Johnson is outpacing Smith-Schuster, who put up 917 yards as a rookie. Keep in mind that Martavis Bryant was inactive for the first six games of his career.
Compared to the other wide receivers in his draft class, the past two games have shot him into being one of the hottest rookie wide receivers in the NFL.
With an injured tight end, along with a rookie and second-year receiver seeing their second career games in big roles somebody needed to step up and take the pressure away from Smith-Schuster, the running game and of course the young quarterback.
Johnson was the one to step up the plate. He became an outside threat that can move Smith-Schuster around pre-snap and a deep threat that can open up the middle of the field as well. Considering James Washington has a feel for Rudolph as it is, the attention that Johnson will start to receive may open up the other side for the rekindling of that relationship. The play of Johnson may have a ripple effect that makes the rest of his receivers better and makes life much easier for his young quarterback.
Look for Johnson to continue to ascend, and prove once again that when the Steelers draft a wide receiver, you can trust them on it.