The Pittsburgh Steelers will face a nearly impossible task over the next few weeks as they attempt to replace the production of top wide receiver Diontae Johnson.
Johnson is expected to miss multiple weeks with a hamstring injury, creating a massive hole in the team’s starting lineup. He led the Steelers in targets, receptions, yards, and receptions for a first down in 2022 and was expected again to be the leader in nearly all of those categories again this season.
This week, when the Steelers deploy their traditional, three-receiver offense, you can expect second-year receiver Calvin Austin III to replace Johnson as a starter, and second-year fellow outside receiver George Pickens and tight end Pat Freiermuth should be the recipient of most of the additional targets created by Johnson’s absence. But neither of those will replace the impact Johnson can have in the Steelers’ passing game.
At least, not alone.
Freiermuth was one of the most dangerous tight ends in the NFL last season when he played flexed out in the slot. He finished second only to Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro Travis Kelce regarding yards per route run as a flexed-out tight end.
But the Steelers haven’t used Freiermuth in that fashion very often. They’ve more frequently used in in-line, next to their tackle, to provide help and insurance against quality edge rushers, like San Francisco 49ers star Nick Bosa on Sunday.
However, the Steelers have another tight end that can do that job. Third-round rookie Darnell Washington is already an excellent blocker. The team can play him as an in-line tight end and help the tackles with top rushers while essentially allowing Freiermuth to replace Johnson’s role in the passing offense. The Steelers would then use him just like the Chiefs use Kelce, almost exclusively as a receiver and blocker in space.
Freiermuth is not as dynamic of a receiver as Johnson, no tight end is. But there is not much reason to believe the Steelers could do a better job of replacing Johnson solely by using wide receivers. Austin is undersized as a slot option, let alone if asked to play outside receiver, and would be playing in his second NFL game. Veteran slot starter Allen Robinson II showed last year that he is not capable of filling the role on the outside the Johnson usually does. At the same time, Freiermuth has the potential to be better if used differently.
Johnson is just one of several potential severe injuries for the Steelers this week. While the team does not have anything near a 1 to 1 replacement available to them, there is a way that they can replace most of his production with the players they have on the roster.
Of course, Freiermuth also popped up on the team’s post-game injury report with a chest injury. So his availability will also be a key part of the plan.