The obvious question surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers heading into the 2019 season was how the team’s offense will look without Antonio Brown. Regardless of his off-the-field antics, he had natural chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger and was arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.
JuJu Smith-Schuster can certainly step up, but he will do it in different ways than Brown. Instead, the Steelers are going to look for a variety of pass catchers to step up to the plate and take a little bit of the workload. That was demonstrated immediately in the openers versus New England with the team starting Ryan Switzer and Donte Moncrief next to Smith-Schuster, while also using Johnny Holton on the first drive. James Washington and Diontae Johnson saw a little work in the first half as well before seeing more utilization in garbage time.
The Steelers are testing things out at wide receiver. Roethlisberger missed Holton deep, Moncrief recorded seven drops, Switzer had the stat line of a short-yardage running back, Washington questionably ran out of bounds on his best play, and Johnson had a penalty. It is safe to say there is still a jumble of receivers on the depth chart behind Smith-Schuster.
When asked about the development of the group, Mike Tomlin noted that the group is a work in progress.
“That’s a process that we’re going to go through particularly at the early stages of this season every week, not in reaction to what transpired in-stadium Sunday night, it’s just the nature of this thing as you harden up your division of labor and find your personalities at the early stages of this thing.”
Tomlin noted that he will not overreact to Week 1, but also that it is the nature of things that the room will develop. That is a fact in Pittsburgh when looking at their history at receiver. Since the new CBA in 2011, practice times have been limited, and starters have played less in the preseason. Teams will try to use the first four weeks to sort things out and try to get hot for a playoff run.
This can be shown in the Steelers receiving core going back to 2014. In 2014, the team started Week 1 shuffling Lance Moore and Justin Brown next to Markus Wheaton and Antonio Brown. By the end of the year, rookie Martavis Bryant had eight touchdowns and was an established splash player in the offense. A 2015 suspension to Bryant saw Darius Heyward-Bey start early in the year before Bryant put up over 750 yards. In 2016 Bryant was suspended. This was supposed to lead to Sammie Coates emerging, but by the AFC Championship Eli Rogers and Cobi Hamilton were the starters next to Brown.
In 2017, Rogers started over Smith-Schuster in Week 1 before Smith-Schuster put up 900 yards as a rookie. Smith-Schuster went over 50 yards just once in the first seven games of his rookie year. Finally, last season saw Justin Hunter as a starter through three weeks. In the Steelers loss to the New Orleans Saints, Brown, Smith-Schuster, Washington, Rogers, and Switzer all saw snaps over Hunter.
So, when Tomlin talks about this process being natural and that they will sort things out in the first few weeks of the season, you tend to trust him on that one.
For the Steelers, their development track is obvious. They drafted Washington in the second round and have talked him up this preseason. They mentioned having a first-round grade on Johnson. This is their future. These are the players that should progress as the year goes on such as Bryant, and Smith-Schuster.
They are still not sold on Washington’s ability to be a complete receiver, and he has not earned the trust of Roethlisberger. However, the offense needs his splash-play ability to keep the defense honest. When looking at the routes where Smith-Schuster was successful on Sunday, he was at his best working the middle of the field. The Steelers motioned him around and got him in good matchups to take advantage of space he has always dominated.
However, Ryan Switzer is a true slot receiver, who does not test defenses down the field and works the short middle. With Vance McDonald typically operating in that space as well things will get condensed. Washington does not have a refined route tree, and he can get jammed up at times. He also has had issues finding chemistry with Roethlisberger.
However, he opens things up in the offense. He takes the role that Bryant once had. Bryant technically was a starter for just three games as a rookie, and five in year two. However, his presence as a player who can flip the field was enough to keep defenses honest and see him emerge as a number two.
You can see that the types of routes Washington runs will open Smith-Schuster up to do what he does best more than Switzer.
Washington does not have to start or play full games. However, he does need to get on the field to test defenses and open up space in the middle of the field for Smith-Schuster.
On the other side, the Patriots dared Moncrief to beat them, and teams will follow suit. Roethlisberger said he is committed to Moncrief. Tomlin said one game will not change things. However, this team has moved on from Moore, and Hunter, other veterans who did not quite live up to the hype.
Moncrief has a leash longer than one game, but his leash could still be short. Especially if Johnson can step up. Last week, Johnson was the last receiver in the rotation, behind Holton, and Washington, but may have brought the most optimism.
In his first career reception, he made a one-handed grab lined up on the outside. You can see that on the other side a deep route is being run while Smith-Schuster motioned into the slot to take over the middle of the field. This is how the offense will need to flow.
Later in the game, Johnson showed great quickness to create separation on the outside in the short area. His ability to create in the quick passing game could help get him on the field.
Johnson would typically play the “X” role that Brown occupied and Moncrief currently plays. However, if Johnson can emerge, then Moncrief and Washington can both be used to clear space which opens the middle of the field back up for Smith-Schuster.
Johnson missed a lot of preseason time with injuries but has impressed at every stop so far. The Steelers will certainly continue to ease him in, but If they really did have such a high grade on him they have to be happy with his presence and more willing to bump him into an every-down role than Washington.
Still, the Steelers need the splash element from Washington who will need to be mixed in more. The Steelers have typically eased their young wide receivers into the mix early into the season. While the changes may not come immediately, both young receivers could continue to slowly progress into bigger roles as the season goes on.
Over the next couple of weeks, look for all six receivers to mix and match as the team looks for who can be in their core rotation for the main stretch of the schedule.