PITTSBURGH — The Steelers offense hopes it has better days on the horizon. Since the start of the season, the group has struggled mightily to get much going, and part of that might be partly because of the critical loss of Diontae Johnson. Johnson had not missed any significant time in his NFL career, but a hamstring injury knocked him out for four games, robbing Pittsburgh of key wide receiver depth and its best separator.
Now, Johnson is set to return against the Rams. The veteran expects his 21-day return window from injured reserve to open starting Monday. All the pressure put on George Pickens could signal some much-needed help for the offense with Johnson’s separation abilities coming back.
“Obviously, you got to cover Diontae too, right? I think George is getting quite a bit of double coverage and some of those things. So, I think that’s going to, you know, getting Diontae back helps those guys. Getting Pat (Freiermuth) helps everybody. So, obviously you’ve got two big weapons for our offense that we’re excited to hopefully have back. And that’s a big thing for us,” offensive coordinator Matt Canada said.
Johnson sees himself as a guy who can draw some of that attention away from Pickens. Pickens has started to rise as a star in the NFL without Johnson, but Johnson could make it much easier for Pickens to impact a game. They can move around alignments and free Pickens up to do more, and if teams still decide to focus on Pickens, then Johnson will have man coverage across the board to make plays.
“Obviously, he’s a really talented guy, and we’ve missed him a lot,” quarterback Kenny Pickett said. “He helps move the chains, and he gets great separation. He’s been a great teammate and leader for us in that room as well as helping guys out. So, I mean getting him back is massive for us on offense. And I think just by watching us you can see that we’ve missed him. I think it’ll help George out, it’ll help Allen and Cal and kind of those guys that have been working really hard and playing a lot of snaps. So, I think it’ll be great for us as a whole to get 18 back.”
Over the past week, Johnson has started inching closer to his return. But Tuesday was the big day, where the team would test out Johnson’s hamstring. He ran off the side, and that went exceptionally well. Before the Ravens game, he felt 85 percent but did not feel like he would have been able to give it his all, but now he feels 100 percent and ready to go as Los Angeles.
Pittsburgh looks to make the offense work better with Johnson in the lineup. It won’t fix everything, and there is a lot for the group to iron out. But Johnson’s natural ability to separate and create yards after the catch makes the skill group much more dangerous.