While Diontae Johnson has been sidelined for a good deal of camp due to a nagging calf injury, he made his presence known immediately on Thursday. The pool report detailed nothing short a dominant day for the second year Toledo product.
To open up the practice, Johnson and Ben Roethlisberger connected on a big 30-yard pass play down the field, which Johnson caught in stride. Later on, in the red zone period, Johnson caught a fade from Roethlisberger, dragging his feet to stay in bounds and get a touchdown. Roethlisberger and Johnson hooked up once again later in the practice on a deep 20-yard out route as well.
All in all, it was a massively impressive day for Johnson, who has strong year two expectations after an extremely promising rookie campaign. Johnson also seemed to be named the starting punt returner heading into week one against the New York Giants. Special Teams have been hard to evaluate, as Mike Tomlin noted, but he has complete confidence in Johnson’s abilities.
“I’m extremely comfortable with the utilization of Diontae [Johnson] along with his offensive workload,” Tomlin said. “He has real talents in that area and a desire to do so. I thought he just got better and better over the course of last year and I think he ended up making an All-AP team or something.”
Johnson led the NFL in broken tackles and separation per target last year. Those are just two stats that were impressive for the third-round pick. Johnson is expected to be the starting X-receiver heading into the 2020 season.
Jaylen Samuels Locks His Spot on the Roster
The fourth running back spot on the Steelers roster has been one that was least clear heading into training camp, but now at the end, it is clear as day that Jaylen Samuels will carry that spot into the season. While he had two rushing touchdowns in the red zone period on Friday, Samuels got effusive praise from Tomlin today about his skillset.
“He is continuing to be impressive with his versatility,” Tomlin said. “I think that is the thing that has always kind of distinguished him in a competitive setting among his peers. His ability to do a variety of things at a relatively high level particularly in the passing game and outside the backfield with his hands and route running. It is above the line from a running back perspective for sure.”
The wording of the quote, specifically to say “above his peers” clearly means the Steelers view Samuels in a positive light. Just last week, Samuels was being worked into packages in the system as well. It clearly signals that Samuels is not going anywhere.
The Offense Lights Up the Red Zone Period
One of the highlights of the practice period may have been the impressive showing by the Steelers offense in the red zone with Roethlisberger as their leader. On all four red zone attempts, the offense won and registered a touchdown. One of those attempts was the fade from Roethlisberger to Johnson.
However, the pool report also mentions an impressive showing to an array of targets. Roethlisberger threw touchdowns to James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Eric Ebron as well as Johnson on the period.
The Steelers were ranked last in the NFL in red-zone offense last year but were first with Roethlisberger in the mix in 2018, the Steelers were the best red-zone team in the NFL. With new additions to the weapons group and the influence of Matt Canada, the Steelers hope this carries over to the games.
The Defense Picks off Mason Rudolph Three Times
The defense did get some revenge on the offense, albeit not on Roethlisberger. Throughout the day, Mason Rudolph was the victim of some opportunistic defensive backs that saw blood in the water and capitalized for three overall interceptions on the day per the pool report.
The first was veteran Jordan Dangerfield, who caught a ricochet off the hands of Saeed Blacknall and executed the tip drill to perfection. The Steelers got their fair share of interceptions off similar plays last season. Steven Nelson nearly had two on the day, as he nearly jumped a crossing route by DeAndre Thompkins. However, he did capitalize on a similar play against Amara Darboh, and picked that one-off. The last one was Joe Haden, who intercepted Rudolph to end practice on a 40-yard pass to the end zone.
Rudolph seemed to have somewhat of a rough day as he faced the defense on Thursday. He did make a nice throw to Deon Cain in practice. However, he tried a deep ball to Oklahoma State teammate James Washington and Justin Layne knocked it down. It was likely a day he wants to forget.