PITTSBURGH — Life without Diontae Johnson is not something the Pittsburgh Steelers ever wanted to consider. In his four previous seasons, the most time Johnson missed in his career was one game in 2020. A hamstring injury seems set to knock Johnson out for multiple weeks. That loss shakes up a unit that appeared to be a strength for the Steelers.
Now, the team looks to George Pickens to step up as a top receiver, Allen Robinson II to regain form, and, more importantly, Calvin Austin III to prove he is ready to be something more than a speedy gadget guy. The Steelers will keep a plan that allows them to be multiple. They will work in more tight ends, running backs, and move the receivers around. That all will check into how Johnson gets replaced. But the playmakers at wide receiver need to step up.
“It will be a lot of everything,” Robinson said. “Whenever you’re missing a player of Diontae’s caliber, it takes all hands on deck. I think we already prepared for that. It will be a little bit of everything to fill that role and change the offense’s identity.”
The X-factor of this entire thing seems to be Austin, however. Players sing his praises consistently. Kenny Pickett did so again on Wednesday. When you ask anyone what he does so well, it’s about how he uses his speed and attack leverage. There is some nuance there in his game. If Pickett got solid protection on a slant route, Austin hit a rocker step that would have gone for a touchdown. That’s the type of stuff that Austin can do.
“Yeah, it’s been high,” Pickett said on his confidence in Austin. “It’s always been high on Calvin. He does a great job. He worked so hard, always where I needed him to be, so I think that’s why we have success working together, and I’m excited to get back out there on Monday and continue that success.”
Austin sees himself moving around in the slot and outside. That is consistent with what he did in the preseason and training camp. Expect the Steelers to have a tough time with life after Diontae Johnson, but they have some ideas. And who knows, maybe Austin is the pleasant surprise they were looking for this season.
Hor Rod Gets Some Run
On Wednesday, with Pat Freiermuth taking it a little easy with a chest injury, the Steelers turned to one man — Rodney Williams. Williams, the practice squad tight end, confirmed to Steelers Now that he ran with the first team. So, where does he fit into this entire equation? Darnell Washington and Connor Heyward have designed areas that make a lot of sense. But Williams is far more akin to Freiermuth. Williams might be Freiermuth’s direct backup, and he certainly believes that.
“That’s how I look at it. That’s who my game is the closest to out of the guys in the room. I would see myself as Pat’s backup,” Williams said.
He improved dramatically as a blocker at training camp this year. Williams earned himself a comfortable spot on the practice squad by doing so and coming out with natural athleticism as a flex tight end. Williams should get the elevation if any injury occurs for an extended period.
One thing that most players in the secondary seem to agree upon is the need to improve communication. Mike Tomlin called it out as a significant factor in the defensive performance on the back end. If you watch the tape, Minakh Fitzpatrick had to play as leader in the secondary, and even then, the guys seemed out of cahoots. At the second level, Cole Holcomb looked lost a few times. It’s not all that went wrong, but I have to imagine the motions that San Francisco ran all day caused the Steelers to go haywire.
I confirmed with Patrick Peterson that there was a miscommunication on the first touchdown to Brandon Aiyuk. This needs to improve quickly, and the team has to get their run fits right against the Cleveland Browns. If not, it could be a long day against Nick Chubb and an impressive offensive line for the Browns that loves to maul players. That makes it hard in its own right, and Keeanu Benton noted the tough struggles it will take to get Chubb down.
“There’s not gonna be no arm tackling this guy. You really got to wrap him up and take him down. That’s been an emphasis for the D line this morning,” Benton said.
Regardless of how hard it is to bring down Chubb. Nothing will matter unless the defense communicates well on the front and back. Those communication issues perplexed a group with so many veterans but were abundant in destructive ways.
Bounce Back Kenny Pickett
The Steelers remain confident in their quarterback, and he remains confident in himself. Pickett, who came out and played a rotten game, thought a few throws got away from him, and it snowballed from there. Plenty of throws got away from him, and it seemed to have a spiraling effect. Yet, the second-year quarterback has no hesitation about turning over a new leaf and focusing on Monday.
“Confidence in myself, the team, the guys around me,” Pickett said. “You know, I know everyone’s going to answer the bell. We’re going to come out and play on Monday. So, love the energy we have around here. Love the practice that we had today. Everyone’s putting their best foot forward this week. So, it’s just about going out there Monday night, competing and winning.”