On the final play of the loss to the Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson sustained a knee injury, and the news doesn’t sound good.
Per ESPN’s Brooke Pryor, Johnson posted an ominous update on his Instagram story: “Appreciate everyone for the checkups! The comeback gone be even greater.”
Using the word “comeback,” Johnson alludes to the injury being long-term. Johnson led the team in receiving yards last season, and an extended period without him would be a major hit to an already struggling Steelers offense.
We should know the full extent of Johnson’s injury on September 21, when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin hosts his weekly press conference.
Drop It Like It’s Hot
Though Johnson has lost his fair share of targets — he led the NFL in drops in 2020 — his contributions to the Steelers offense go beyond a player selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL draft.
In three seasons, Johnson has registered 1,744 yards and 13 touchdowns. And despite being on a roster flush with talented receivers, Johnson’s had four career 100-yard games, including one versus the Raiders (per Pro Football Reference).
As for those pesky drops, Johnson vowed to put a lid on it in 2021.
“A lot of people are going to drop the football,” Johnson said in August, via Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The best of the best drop the football. It shows [Ben Roethlisberger] still trust[s] me and keeps coming my way, no matter what, as long as I can keep my head in the game and know what I’m doing at all times.
“I’ve been doing that in practice. I haven’t been dropping the ball and continue to contribute to the offense.”
Through two weeks, Johnson has had not one drop. If he’s lucky to return healthy this season, let’s hope that streak continues.
James Washington’s Chance to Shine
The usually reserved James Washington approached the Steelers brass and reportedly requested a trade during the offseason (Tomlin later denied a request was made), citing an anticipated reduced role on the Steelers’ offense.
If it holds true that Johnson will miss extended playing time, Washington will get his chance to shine. Not an ideal scenario for the fourth-year receiver to showcase his skills, but players buried on the depth chart know they need to step up when their name is called.
Washington’s time in Pittsburgh has been a frustrating one. He watched as the Steelers selected receiver after receiver since coming onto the Steelers scene as a second-round draft pick in 2018. First, it was Johnson (2019), then Chase Claypool (2020).
Despite this, Washington was the Steelers leading receiver in 2019. After Ben Roethlisberger succumbed to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, Mason Rudolph took the reins in Pittsburgh. Rudolph was Washington’s quarterback at Oklahoma State, where the two made sweet, sweet music together. With nearly 5,000 of Rudolph’s career yards accounting for passes to Washington (per College Sports Reference), the dynamic duo made headlines as the most exciting offensive pair in the Big 12.
During their senior season, the quarterback/wide receiver twosome connected 74 times for 1,549 yards (119 per game) and 15 touchdowns. The achievement earned Washington the Biletnikoff Award for most outstanding receiver (per OSU football bio).
The Future of the Steelers?
Whether Rudolph-to-Washington is the future of the Pittsburgh Steelers remains to be seen. Rudolph is currently the only quarterback under contract for 2022, but Washington’s contract expires at the end of this season. Unless Pittsburgh makes the receiver a last-minute offer, he’ll hit free agency in March.