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Steelers OTA Takeaways: Diontae Johnson Returns, Kenny Pickett Learns

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Pittsburgh Steelers WR Diontae Johnson
Diontae Johnson smiles during Steelers OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Tuesday, May 31, 2022.

PITTSBURGH — If anyone was wondering about when Diontae Johnson would practice with the Steelers this offseason, the fourth-year wide receiver ended that debate by reporting to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex Tuesday for the second week of voluntary OTAs.

While Johnson won’t speak to Pittsburgh media until minicamp, his return did get several Steelers talking about his the impact he made in just his first day at the facility. Kenny Pickett had been getting used to the NFL with Chase Claypool and the rookies George Pickens and Calvin Austin III, but getting to throw to the Steelers’ leading receiver from last season was different.

“It was my first time getting a chance to throw to him,” Pickett said. “Obviously you can see how talented he is. I’m really excited to play with him since he just got here.”

Johnson being back gave Pickett a chance to look at what a complete Steelers receiver room will look like this season. Seeing that gave him some excitement for the season.

“Of course man,” Pickett said of Johnson making him a better quarterback. “Those guys make my job easier. I just have to get them the ball. We have a lot of special talents in the receiver room. I get them the ball, those guys will do the rest.

While Pickett got to throw the ball to Johnson during practice, fellow rookie wide receiver Calvin Austin III got to work up close with him and get his first chance to learn from Johnson, whose 1,161 receiving yards was tenth-most in the NFL last season.

“It’s been great,” Austin said. “You can tell he’s been a vet. He’s a guy who’s done it before, so seeing the way he works, how he came in and prepared, it’s something I can definitely look up to.”

Austin, a 23-year old receiver who played four years at Memphis, noted how he’d studied Johnson as a player before he even got to the NFL.

“I’ve definitely watched his tape,” Austin III said. “I watch a whole lot of football. He’s a guy who’s quicker and who gets in and out his breaks. He’s definitely guy I’ve watched before. So to continue to watch him in detail in practice with how he gets in and out of his breaks, it’s definitely something I can take and learn.”

Austin even when as far as to compare both of their playing style as receivers. Johnson may be three inches taller than the rookie, but both use their explosiveness and athleticism to create separation and get open for their quarterbacks. Austin’s just impressed by how sharp Johnson is in his routes to get open, and wants to take some of that sharpness for himself.

“I would say we definitely have similarities in our game as far as our quickness and shiftiness,” Austin said of Johnson. “I kind of got my own type of game. Just from watching him, there’s definitely stuff I can learn from. One thing I work on is getting out my breaks. That’s something he does very well. It’s just about watching the older guys and stealing stuff from each of them to learn and put it in my game.”

VETERAN QBS HELPING OUT

In addition to Johnson helping the rookie receivers, the veteran quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Mitch Trubisky have been helping them out with getting used to NFL expectations during OTAs.

“It’s been easy,” Austin said of working with the Steelers’ veteran quarterbacks. “Those are obviously guys who’ve done it on this level. They understand that we’re rookies and they’re working with us on different looks. It’s always a conversation because they know we’re not going to get it right-off. So it’s about continuing to communicate, talk and get on the same page.”

Getting pointers from the signal callers who have a combined experience of nine NFL seasons and 60 starts would be a boost. That’s especially true as the rookie receivers aren’t just looking to learn one or two receiver spots in the Steelers’ playbook, but all of them.

“I’ve been learning all of them,” Austin said about learning positions. “That’s one thing that coach Fris (receivers coach Frisman Jackson) does a great job with. You’re not just going to come in and learn one position. You’ve got to know the whole concept. By learning that, I’ll be able to play multiple positions and that’ll help the offense come easier. Because I’ll know everything and it’s going to come all together.”

It’s not enough just to know where to line up for NFL wide receivers, but how to attack different routes when facing different coverages. That’s where NFL quarterbacks who’ve been around the block a few times can give insight to help receivers figure out the best ways to counter various coverage tactics and alignments that might throw them off their game.

“I’m definitely getting there,” Austin said with adjusting to the NFL. “Every day there’s something to be learned. Each day I’m getting more and more comfortable. Even with the play call, now I can hear it, go out, line up and I can read the defense instead of seeing where I line up. It’s really about taking each day and focusing on getting better at hearing it and knowing my position.”

“I’ve learned a lot,” Austin continued. “Guys who’ve been here have helped with different routes, what to do when defenders (give different looks). There’s just so many coverages you don’t see in college that you see at this level that the other guys have seen many times. It’s just about being a sponge. Soak up everything you hear from the older guys.”

Make no mistake, those veteran quarterbacks are also helping Pickett out.

“It’s been really small things here and there,” Pickett said about advice he’s getting from Trubisky and Rudolph. “It’s not a formal sit-down where you say, ‘hey man can you give me all the secrets.’ We’re just going through plays and then I ask, ‘hey what did see here? Why did you do this? What footwork do you like to use?’ All little things like that we work together and everyone is getting better. It’s good competition.”

“Each guy does different things well,” Pickett continued. “I’m just trying to ask questions and take it all in these first weeks and learn the offense. The guys who’ve done it, I’m trying to learn from. I ask Mitch and Mason as many questions as I can. Me and Chris (Oladokun) are attached to the hip all day. We’re going through it together, it’s been fun.”

If you’re thinking about it being awkward that Pickett is getting help from Trubisky and Rudolph, two veteran quarterbacks who could be supplanted by the Steelers’ latest first round draft pick: don’t. Pickett negated any questions about there being tension between the three quarterbacks competing for one starting job.

“I don’t know,” Pickett said about the quarterback competition. “We’re all learning. I’m just attacking each day. You guys make a bigger deal out of the competition than the players do because we’re competing every single day regardless. I’m just excited to be part of this team and compete.”

In fact, Pickett knew he would be the third string walking onto OTAs and working with the offense.

“I didn’t think I’d walk in here and be the one,” Pickett said of taking third-team reps. “It’s what I was expecting coming here. I have to earn everything I get. It’s how it goes in life and in the game. I’m excited to be here.”

In addition to to the quarterbacks, Pickett has grown accustomed to learning from Mike Tomlin. The two went from interacting when they saw each other at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex during the five years Pickett played for Pitt to now Tomlin being Pickett’s head coach.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Pickett said of working with Tomlin. “Every team meeting there’s always something or little things he points out that I really hadn’t looked for in previous years playing. He’s a great guy to have. He’s a great defensive mind too. As I get more comfortable with the offense I can start picking his brain more about defenses and what I can expect during the season. It’s been going well.”

CAM KEEPING CLOSE WATCH ON KENNY

It’s no secret how much of a leader Cam Heyward is for the Steelers. Outside of being the team’s three-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman, he’s been the charismatic centerpiece to the team for years now.

It’s important to Heyward that he imparts that energy onto the rookies. That’s especially true for Pickett, who Heyward made sure that both their lockers were next to each other.

During Pickett’s talk with Pittsburgh media Tuesday, Heyward was listening in.

“We’re making good strides there,” Pickett said about learning names of teammates. “I get here pretty early. It’s usually the same crew I’m with for breakfast. But for lunch, I get 15 minutes to lift, grab a lunch and go to meeting. That’s the time I’m trying to learn everybody’s name.”

Poking from around the neighboring locker was Heyward who wanted to interject.

“You know my name?,” Cam Heyward said to interrupt Pickett’s interview.

Kenny Pickett (left) is interrupted by Cam Heyward (right) during an interview after Steelers OTAs at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Tuesday, May 31, 2022.

“Cam,” Pickett said with a laugh.

When Pickett asked about whose locker was next to Cam Heyward, the answer being Cam’s brother Connor Heyward, Cam interrupted before Pickett could answer by saying, “don’t worry about him.”

“It’s been good,” Pickett said of having his locker next to Heyward. “Obviously he has such a strong leader presence on the team. He’s a defensive guy, so I can learn how he leads on that side of the ball, take some things away and bring that to the offensive side.”

If Pickett is supposed to be the quarterback of the future for the Steelers, there aren’t many better people to be next to him than Heyward as he learns what it takes to play for the team. If Heyward’s leadership and charisma rubs off on Pickett, it would go a long way to him being the next franchise quarterback for the Steelers.

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