NFL.com’s Adam Rank unveiled his season preview for the Pittsburgh Steelers on Tuesday, and suggested a surprising candidate to have a breakout in 2022, as Rank predicts that second-year inside linebacker Buddy Johnson will be the team’s breakout star this upcoming season.
Johnson barely played as a rookie in 2021, logging six defensive snaps for the Steelers last season after being drafted in the fourth round out of Texas A&M. He recorded two solo tackles in 2021. Rank’s reasoning is more of an indictment of incumbent starter Devin Bush, who struggled in 2021, than it is a seal of approval for Johnson.
“The 2021 fourth-round pick is currently buried on the depth chart behind the newly signed Myles Jack and Devin Bush,” Rank writes. “But Bush, whose defensive grade from Pro Football Focus ranked 58th among linebackers who played at least 50 percent of defensive snaps last season, has never quite lived up to the expectations set when Pittsburgh drafted him 10th overall in 2019.”
Still, Rank believes Johnson will take a next step under new senior defensive assistant Brian Flores.
“With Flores on this staff, I’m looking for the 23-year-old Johnson to flash, or at least get regular defensive snaps,” Rank said.
Johnson told Steelers Now’s Chris Carter that he feels better prepared to handle the Steelers’ 3-4 defense in 2022.
“I learned from the older guys about the playbook,” Johnson said. “I came from a 4-2 nickel defense to jump into a 3-4 defense, it’s a lot different for me. The different run gaps work differently so I’ve learned from guys about that and am more prepared.”
A two-year starter for the Aggies, Johnson was a finalist for the Butkus Award in 2020. He registered 210 tackles, 24.5 tackles-for-loss, 6.5 sacks, five pass breakups, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and one interception over 47 career games in College Station.
Rank made no mention of inside linebackers Robert Spillane, Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III, all of which played more than Johnson did in 2021.