Catching On? Steelers Draft Calvin Austin, Wide Receiver, Memphis in 4th Round

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened Day 3 of the 2022 NFL Draft by picking Calvin Austin III, wide receiver out of Memphis in the 4th round. Austin III is the 2nd wide out picked by Pittsburgh in this draft, after they chose George Pickens of Georgia in the 2nd round.

Austin, who has a 4.32 time in the 40, originally went to Memphis on a track scholarship, although he played football for four years. During that time he caught 156 passes for 2541 yards and scored 22 touchdowns in 33 games.

Calvin Austin III, Steelers 4th round draft pick, 2022 NFL Draft

Calvin Austin III, the Pittsburgh Steelers 4th round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Photo Credit: Noticias del Deporte Mundial

Steelers wide receiver coach Frishman Jackson explained that Austin was attractive in part because he is a player that can play both in the slot and outside. Commenting on his small stature, Austin is only 5’8”, Jackson commended Austin as a player who “goes up and attacks the ball in the air” which makes him someone who is “bigger than his size.”

Commenting on his interactions with Austin at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson complemented Austin as someone whom “…you felt the competitiveness in his voice when he spoke, felt the toughness that he had.”

When asked to give examples of that toughness on the field, Austin shared, “I think they were playing Temple, and I see him run across the middle to catch an end route and he’s going to get the crap hit out of him. He holds on and makes the catch.”

Calvin Austin Video Highlights

Here’s a look at Calvin Austin’s highlight reel, brought to you via a meld of the magic of YouTube and Word Press:

His speed is evident throughout the tape, and it looks like he has solid hands to, although you’d expect that of a pre-draft highlights tape.

What is really encouraging is his heads up play as a gunner on the punt return, as this highlights both his athleticism and sold football instincts, if not IQ.

Just two days ago the Steelers wide receivers room was a wanting place. Now, whether its Mitch Trubisky, Mason Rudolph or Kenny Pickett throwing the ball, they’ll have plenty of downfield targets beyond Chase Claypool and Diontae Johnson.

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Another “Pick.” Steelers Draft George Pickens in 2nd Round of 2022 NFL Draft, WR from Georgia

Pittsburghers are loyal, and the Steelers remain true to their traditions. This was the case in the 2022 NFL Draft when the Steelers picked wide receiver George Pickens in the second round. The junior from Georgia is the latest in a line of 2nd round wide receives that Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have taken starting with:

Although he came in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Diontae Johnson was in fact their second pick.

George Pickens brings an interesting resume to the Steelers. At 6’3” 200 pounds and a 4.47 time in the 40. However, a torn ACL in the spring of 2022 cost him all but four games of his Junior season, but that was enough for him to catch a 52 yard touchdown that helped the Bulldogs win a National Championship.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 2nd round draft pick

George Pickens, National Championship game. Photo Credit: Robert Scheer, Indy Times.

ickens has had discipline issues, getting suspended by the team and sitting out a half for fighting. He was also cited after being in an accident without a seat belt.

Still, his talent is event. During his first two seasons Pickens had 85 catches for over 1200 yards and 14 touchdowns. Speaking on Steelers.com, draft analyst Matt Williamson suggested he could be the best wide receiver in the draft.

Speaking to reporters, Steelers offensive coordinator described Pickens as “explosive” multiple times, and confirmed that the Steelers could either split him wide or work him in the slot.

George Pickens Highlights

Early in his college career, Pickens was seen as a potential number 5 pick. So its no surprise that he has highlight reel to show, which we share via the magic of YouTube:

George Pickens knows how to catch and he knows how to score touchdowns.

First round draft pick Kenny Pickett now has another target to throw to in addition to Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Miles Boykin and Gunner Olszewski.

Welcome to Steelers Nation George Pickens.

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Back! For Now… Steelers Resign Terrell Edmunds to 1 Year Contract

Less than one week out from the 2022 NFL Draft the Pittsburgh Steelers have added another piece to their puzzle with their decision to resign Terrell Edmunds to a reported 1 year 2.5 million dollar contract.

Terrell Edmunds, Terrell Edmunds first interception, Steelers vs Buccaneers

Terrell Edmunds returns his first interception at Tampa Bay. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

The Steelers shocked draft observers by picking Terrell Edmunds in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Edmunds immediately assumed the starting role and almost never left the field for four straight years. Still, last spring the Steelers opted not to pick up Terrell Edmunds 5th year option, making him a free agent.

  • Free agency hit with a bang in March, with the Steelers making a record number of signings.

Yet, Terrell Edmunds was not one of those. Nor was his phone ringing off the hook, apparently. What followed was what we can only assume was a negotiation stalemate. There were multiple on social media reports, including several with contract terms, that the “Honey Badger” Tyrann Mathieu was about to sign with the Steelers.

The contract never materialized. About a week ago, Bob Labriola confirmed on Steelers.com during “Asked and Answered” that the Steelers were indeed interested in Mathieu, but could not agree on his worth. In parallel to that, both national and Pittsburgh reporters informed readers that the door remained open for Terrell Edmunds.

  • Edumnds has walked through that door.

This is a wise move for both sides. At 2.5 million per year, Terrell Edmunds is clearly signing a “prove it contract” and banking on finding greener pastures inside or outside of Pittsburgh next spring. The Steelers gambled a bit by not offering Edmunds a 5th year tender, and they’ve won that gamble.

  • They get a proven starter back at about the third of the cost.

By signing Edmunds, the Steelers also eliminate a major area of need heading into the draft. They could still target a safety early, but will certainly not have to reach to fill a starting role. Behind Edmunds, the Steelers also have Tre Norwood, Miles Killebrew and Karl Joseph at safety.

Steelers Also Firm up WR Depth Chart with MMyles Boykin Signing

Signing Terrell Edmunds wasn’t the Steelers only move last week. They also made a successful wavier wire claim in Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Miles Boykin. Boykin was Baltimore’s third round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame.

Despite his draft pedigree, Boykin has had a lackluster NFL career, having only made 33 catches in 24 career starts. He has logged 7 touchdowns, however. Wide receiver will still likely be a Steelers priority in the draft, but Boykin does give them some depth behind Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and Gunner Olszewski.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers 2022 NFL Draft Needs: Examining Pittsburgh @ Wide Receiver

The receiver position has long been considered one the Steelers have excelled at in terms of drafting players, developing them and getting decent-to-great production out of those players.

  • When was the last time the Steelers didn’t have a receiving corps that was considered to be deep and talented?

It might be right now, thanks to so many free-agent defections this spring. But are those defections enough to make the position a high priority heading into the 2022 NFL Draft?

Chase Claypool, Steelers vs Bears, Steelers vs Bears MNF

Chase Claypool converts a 3rd down. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Starters

With JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ray-Ray McCloud and James Washington all defecting as free agents this spring, the Steelers currently have two legitimate starters on the roster. Diontae Johnson, the fourth-year man out of Toledo who caught a career-high 107 passes for 1,161 yards and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2021, is one. Chase Claypool, who regressed a bit last season after a rather-spectacular and explosive rookie campaign, is the other. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess as to who’s going to fill the role of slot receiver in 2022.

Steelers Depth Chart @ Wide Receiver Before the 2022 NFL Draft: The Backups

Anthony Miller, a second-round pick by the Bears in 2018, is currently listed as the starting slot receiver on the Steelers’ depth chart. Miller had some promising years in Chicago before being traded to the Texans prior to the 2021 season. After being released by Houston last October, Miller was signed to the Steelers practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in late November. Miller caught just one pass for two yards for Pittsburgh last season and has 140 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards and 12 touchdowns during his first four seasons in the NFL.

Cody White, a 2020 undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, showed a flash of promise a season ago. Tyler Vaughns, Steven Sims and Rico Bussey, three totally unproven players, round out the receiver depth chart, while Gunner Olszewski, a free-agent pickup from the Patriots, has just been a return specialist, albeit a relatively successful one, up to this point in his career.

Steelers 2022 Draft Needs @ Wide Receiver

With little in proven depth behind both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, the Steelers could certainly use an infusion of talent at the receiver position.steelers, draft, needs, priority, 2022 NFL Draft

And let’s not forget that neither Johnson or Claypool has truly established himself as a sure-fire number one receiver in the NFL.

Factor in the conventional wisdom that the 2022 NFL Draft appears to be flush with quality prospects at the receiver position. All things considered, I’d say the Steelers’ draft need at wide receiver is High-Moderate.

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Its Probably Best for Steelers, James Washington to Part Ways in Free Agency

A second-round pick out of Oklahoma State in 2018, James Washington arrived in Pittsburgh as someone Steelers fans hoped would continue the team’s tradition of excellence at the receiver position that started with Hines Ward many years earlier.

But while James Washington had to initially bide his time behind the likes of Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster, he could never quite break through as a breakout star, even after Brown was traded in the 2019 offseason and JuJu Smith-Schuster spent the majority of 2021 — the final year of Washington’s rookie deal — on the Injured Reserve list. As James Washington enters free agency for the first time, the question is, should he and the team continue their relationship?

James Washington, Steelers vs Bengals

James Washington en route to a 79 yard touchdown. Photo Credit: Karl Rosner, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of James Washington’s Steelers Career

During his rookie preseason, James Washington showed glimpses of the deep-threat and combat-catch receiver the Steelers hoped he would be when they drafted him the previous spring, but, as I alluded to earlier, targets were hard to come by during the regular season, and Washington only caught 16 passes for 217 yards for one touchdown in 2018.

James Washington certainly didn’t endear himself to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin in a late-season loss to the Broncos when he dived and failed to catch a deep pass that, had he stayed on his feet, would have gone for a touchdown. Despite what I said earlier, Washington did seem to initially thrive following Brown’s departure and, believe it or not, he did it while mostly catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges in 2019, while Roethlisberger was out with major elbow surgery injury. Washington pulled in 44 passes for a team-high 735 yards and three touchdowns — including a 79-yard catch-and-run against the Bengals in which he displayed both his deep speed as well as his physicality by stiff-arming a Cincinnati defensive back on the way to the end zone.

Unfortunately for James Washington, he couldn’t parlay his 2019 success into greater heights over the next two seasons, as he caught a combined 54 passes for 577 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Case for the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There’s no question that Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool are the Steelers’ top two receivers (at least that are currently under contract). With JuJu Smith-Schuster likely set to explore free agency in search of the lucrative multi-year deal he couldn’t find on the open market last offseason, James Washington could finally get his chance to shine as the number-three receiver. He’s not likely to command much once free agency kicks off, and he could probably be retained on the cheap — even on a one-year “prove it” deal.

The Case Against the Steelers Re-signing James Washington in 2022

There were rumblings that James Washington went to his bosses last summer and asked to be traded because he didn’t feel there was room on the roster for him to shine, especially after JuJu Smith-Schuster surprisingly re-signed with the team last March.

James Washington declined to refute those rumors, which probably meant there was likely some truth to them. Also, Washington garnered little playing time over the last 12 regular-season games following the injury to Smith-Schuster. Instead, Ray-Ray McCloud became a bit of a favorite target for Roethlisberger down the stretch.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and James Washington in 2022

I’d personally keep James Washington around because, again, I believe he could be had on the cheap.

But it’s probably a moot point, considering he likely wants to go somewhere where he can be more of a focal point for an offense. As Mike Tomlin says, “Its free for us, free for them,” and with that in mind it’s probably best for the two parties to go their separate ways.

Stay on top of Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2022 free agency focus articles.

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Fallback Guy – Steelers Free Agent Returner Ray-Ray McCloud Only as Last Resort

“You can’t hope to stop him, you can ONLY hope to contain him,” went ESPN’s Tom Jackson innumerable times on ESPN’s NFL PrimeTime before introducing highlights of players like Mel Gray, Mike Nelms, Clarence Verdin or Vai Sikahema.

These guys may have had WR, RB or even CB listed besides their names, but make no mistake about it:

  • They forged their NFL careers as return men.

Ray-Ray McCloud arrived too late for that era, but maybe he’s lucky. His return skills are good but not great, but they were enough to earn him both a roster spot and reps at wide receiver with the Steelers. Has he done enough to extend his stay in Pittsburgh?

Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud (almost) takes it to the house. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

Capsule Profile of Ray-Ray McCloud’s Career with the Steelers

The Steelers signed Ray-Ray McCloud in 2020 after fumbling issues led both the Bills and the Panthers to part ways with him. McCloud got off to a strong start for the Steelers as both a punt and kick returner, while adding a spark on offense fueled in part by a 58 yard Jet sweep that helped cement the Steelers lead over the Eagles.

Yet after fumbling against the Ravens and then against Washington, his punt return average sunk, as he appeared tentative. In 2021, Ray-Ray McCloud returned to the team as the primary returner and 4th down wide receiver.

Although he did fumble twice, losing one of those, his return average remained steady, and his role in the offense grew, as he logged 39 catches over 20 from the year before.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

Ray-Ray McCloud will never be a star. But he’s shown himself to be an above average punt returner, a competent kick returner and a serviceable 4th wide receiver. The Steelers are going to want some experience behind Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, and Ray-Ray McCloud will provide that – at a very reasonable cap number.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Ray-Ray McCloud

With quarterback a big question mark going into 2022, the Steelers need dynamic players elsewhere in their offense. Ray-Ray McCloud isn’t dynamic and never will be.

So why bring him back?

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Ray-Ray McCloud

The Steelers are going to need to upgrade at wide receiver.

Ray-Ray McCloud might provide decent depth against a rash of injuries at the position, but he’s not someone you want to have penciled in as your number 4 wide out for 3rd and long situations going into the season. And while the Steelers have struggled to find a solid returner for the past several seasons, that’s a role that younger players with legitimate upside can play.

If the Steelers can’t manage to find that in free agency or the draft, then Ray-Ray McCloud could be a fallback option, but only that.

Follow Steelers free agency. Click here for our Steelers 2022 Free Agent tracker or here for all Steelers 2022 free agent focus articles.

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Steelers Promote Teryl Austin, Hire Frishman Jackson, Show Ike Hilliard the Door

The Pittsburgh Steelers made official what has rumored for weeks, if not years yesterday by promoting Teryl Austin to defensive coordinator. Austin replaces Keith Butler who retired last season after spending 7 years in the role after spending over a dozen as linebackers coach.

Teryl Austin, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin

New Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Photo Credit: Chaz, Palla, Tribune Review.

Teryl Austin is native of Shannon, Pennsylvania and a graduate of Pitt who returned to Pittsburgh for the 2019 season to oversee defensive backs and assist Mike Tomlin with replay challenges.

Under Austin’s guidance, the Steelers secondary ranked second in turnovers in 2019 and first in 2020 before dropping to the middle of the pack in 2021. But even 2021’s 22 takeaways were down from previous years, likely due in part to the ease at which anyone with a plus could run on the Steelers defense, is a far cry from the Steelers 2018 effort when the defense posted a meager 14 turnovers.

The Steelers recent improvement in turnovers is certainly more due to the arrival of game changers like Minkah Fitzpatrick and the maturation of T.J. Watt, but the direction under Austin is clear.

Prior to joining the Steelers, Austin coached the defense for the Cincinnati Bengals, were he was fired at mid season  after his unit gave up 3 consecutive 500 yard games. Prior to that, Austin worked as the defensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions from 2014 to 2017 and coached against the Steelers overseeing the Seahawks defensive backs in 2005 in Super Bowl XL and the Cardinals secondary in 2008 in Super Bowl XLIII.

Jackson, Hillard Out @ WR Coach

Those weren’t the only coaching moves the Steelers made this week. In a move that caught the Steelers press by surprise, the team announced that Frishman Jackson had been hired as wide receivers coach.

This is notable because, with media access restricted due to COVID-19, no one knew that the Steelers had declined to renew the contract of Ike Hilliard.

  • If the firing Hillard and hiring Jackson move caught the press by surprise, it is in character for Mike Tomlin.

The wide receivers coaching position has seen several changes during Mike Tomlin’s tenure. Randy Fitchner was his first receivers coach, moving to quarterbacks coach after the 2009 season. Tomlin brought in Scottie Montgomery from the college ranks, but Montgomery found himself unable to handle the wide receivers room following Hines Ward‘s retirement during the Young Money era.

To remedy that, Tomin brought Richard Mann out of retirement, and under Mann’s wing, Antonio Brown blossomed into one of the NFL’s best receivers. While Brown remained a handful off the field during this time, he was generally under control. That began to change when Mann retired after the 2017 season giving way to Darryl Drake.

Darryl Drake passed away after just one season as wide receivers coach and was replaced by former Steelers offensive coordinator Ray Sherman.

Under Hillard Diontae Johnson has developed steadily, if unevenly, but Chase Claypool, the Steelers 2nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, did not make the coveted “sophomore lead” during his 2nd year.

With Austin’s hire official, the Steelers still need to find a new defensive backs coach and the offensive line coaching slot also remains vacant.

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Steelers 2021 Final Report Card: Not Too Tardy to Break Even Edition

Taken from the grade book of a teacher who isn’t too tardy to break even, here is the Pittsburgh Steelers Report Card for the 2021 Season.

T.J. Watt, Steelers vs Titans

T.J. Watt after recovering a Titans fumble. Photo Credit: Chaz Palla, Tribune Review

Quarterback
In in final season, Ben Roethlisberger went 390-605-3,740-22-11 for a passer rating of 86.8. At times he flash Hall of Fame caliber play, at others he looked like he was struggling to be average. Overall his play was solid, and without his gravitas the Steelers would have been lucky to have won 4 games. Still he was slipping. Mason Rudolph looked “OK” in his one start. Grade: B-

Running Backs
As a Steelers running back struggled more break the 1000 yard mark than Najee Harris did in 2021? Maybe Jerome Bettis in 1999. Maybe. Harris had no help from the line and seldom enjoyed Derek Watt’s escort services. Yet Harris got it done. Benny Snell and Kalen Ballage saw little more than spot duty and neither showed themselves capable of spelling Harris for long periods of time – not behind this line. Grade: C+Steelers, Report Card, grades,

Tight Ends
Eric Ebron was splitting snaps fairly evenly until he got hurt vs the Chargers. At that point Pat Freiermuth stepped with Zach Gentry and together with Kevin Rader made tight end to be one of the few bright spots on offense. Grade: B-

Wide Receivers
On balance, Diontae Johnson showed he is a good but not great receiver. Chase Claypool flashed promise and frustration in equal parts as consistency eluded him. JuJu Smith-Schuster was lost early in the season. James Washington was never more than just sort of “there.” Ray-Ray McCloud had a decent time as a number 4 wide out. The Steelers needed more from this unit. Grade: C-

Offensive Line
Yes injuries, surprise retirements, starting rookies too soon and inconsistent coaching were all factors. The bottom line is Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 38 times and the run blocking was atrocious at times. Grade: F

Defensive Line
How do you grade a unit like this? Cam Heyward authored a Hall of Fame worthy season playing alongside… practice squaders. Seriously, guys like Chris Wormley and  Montravius Adams may have shown that they’re serviceable, but they are not starters. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt authored a NFL MVP worthy season suggesting generational talent. Alex Highsmith had his issues, but got better as the season went along. On the inside it was a different story. Robert Spillane is strong against the run but can’t cover the pass. Joe Schobert was decent against the pass. Devin Bush, well let’s just hope his ACL was really bothering him. Watt brings this group’s grade up. Way up. Grade: C-

Cam Sutton, Cam Sutton interception Chargers, Steelers vs Chargers

Cam Sutton intercepts the ball. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Secondary
Cam Sutton authored a strong year in his first season as a starter. Joe Haden showed he has something left, but his body is beginning to brake down while Ahkello Witherspoon came on strong at the end of the year. Terrell Edmunds might not make many splash plays, but he did play in 98% of the snaps and continued to improve. Minkah Fitzpatrick might not have put together the highlight footage he did in years past, but make no mistake about it, he’s the best player on the defense not named Watt. Grade: B

Special Teams
Chris Boswell had a spectacular season. Ray-Ray McCloud showed himself to be a decent return man after a shaky start. Coverage was generally solid. Pressley Harvin had his ups and downs, but the team stuck with him in the face of personal tragedy. Grade: B

Coaching
On offense, the Ben Roethlisberger was clearly not a good fit for Matt Canada’s system and the progress that the unit saw came to a dead stop when Kevin Dotson got hurt and Kendrick Green hit the rookie wall.

  • So Canada’s off the hook right? Not so fast.

Canada isn’t responsible for the personnel he has to work with, but he certainly is in charge of how they are used. The worst sin an offensive coordinator can commit is to try to force a system on players unsuited. Worse yet, is when the coordinators insist on forcing even after it is clear the players are unsuited. Canada appears to have done that in 2021, which is not a good sign for his return.

Mike Tomlin, Steelers vs Browns

Mike Tomlin at Paul Brown Stadium. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

On defense Keith Butler quickly discovered he had a hole in his middle that he didn’t have the personnel to plug. How does one judge a coaching job when one could easily argue that 3 if not 4 of the defense’s front seven need replacing?

Injures, retirements and COVID fueled salary cap limitations left Mike Tomlin the NFL’s most manic depressive roster. On the defensive line alone it was like seeing Hulk Hogan alongside the Batten Twins.

And if Tomlin does deserve some of the criticism for those talent deficiencies – and he does – he also deserves credit for finding a way to eek 9 wins out of this roster. Grade: C

Front Office
As mentioned in our Steelers 2021 Season Review, Pittsburgh actually had a decent plan for fielding a competitive team despite weathering salary cap Armageddon. But injuries and retirements wiped 3 starters off of the board before summer’s end with 2 more losses before the leaves had fallen. And if some of the “next men” up faltered, other replacements fared better. The Front Office faced a potential devastating salary cap situation and fought it to a draw. Grade: C

Unsung Heroes
The Steelers 2021 roster had a lot of holes, holes where the proverbial “Next man up” failed to plug. But a look back at the season finds two non-first line players making consistent contributions doing “the little things” that help win games, and that’s why Arthur Maulet and Tre Norwood are the Unsung Heroes of the 2021 Season.

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Ssh. Diontae Johnson Just Had the Quietest 107-Catch Season In Steelers History

I was shocked when Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson and rookie running back Najee Harris were named to the Pro Bowl in place of receiver Ja’Marr Chase and running back Joe Mixon, two Bengals players who, instead, will have the privilege of participating in Super Bowl XVI a week later.

What was I shocked by?

Johnson, and not because he was actually voted to the Pro Bowl. He’s a nice receiver and someone that I think could be headed for super-stardom, given the right role, quarterback and an ability to shed his reputation as a receiver with poor hands (other than being considered a diva, I can’t think of a worse reputation for a receiver – think of Dwight Hands of Stone.)

Diontae Johnson, Steelers vs Chargers

Diontae Johnson runs for daylight. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

No, the thing that truly shocked me was Johnson’s 2021 stat line that included 1,161 receiving yards and, get this, 107 receptions! No, I couldn’t believe it, either.

I guess I was so surprised by Johnson’s numbers because of the lack of production of the Steelers offense in 2021, a season in which it finished 23rd in total yards, while the team (mostly, the offense) averaged just 20.2 points per game.

It was really one of the worst Steelers offenses I’ve seen in years (maybe decades), which may explain why Diontae Johnson had to wait until the Bengals reached the Super Bowl in order to get the call to play in the 2022 Pro Bowl. It probably also explains why lots of fans were/are ready to move on from Johnson, even as he was putting up career numbers.

  • But were those numbers really that sexy?
Ben Roethlisberger, Harrison Smith, Steelers vs Vikings

Harrison Smith sacks Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: AP via Tribune-Review

I mean, Diontae Johnson averaged just 10.9 yards per catch, which doesn’t exactly scream big-play receiver. It’s probably not Johnson’s fault that he hasn’t fully developed into a superstar player after three seasons. No, I blame the absence of an injured Ben Roethlisberger for most of 2019 as well as the absence of Roethlisberger’s great skills in 2020 and 2021. I blame a poor offensive line that “encouraged” Roethlisberger to get rid of the football at a faster clip than he ever had before.

As per Pro Football Reference, Johnson’s advanced stats show that Roethlisberger’s passes only traveled 5.9 yards before reaching the young receiver. I don’t know if you believe in advanced stats, but they do show that Johnson’s drop rate, well, dropped to just three percent in 2021, as he only dropped five passes all year.

Of course, reputations being what they are, Johnson will likely carry the reputation as someone with poor hands much longer than he deserves to. Also, it doesn’t help that a few of his drops occurred late in the season and even into playoffs where he dropped a couple of passes in the blowout loss to the Chiefs.

Still, though, 107 receptions used to be a big deal, but I guess it’s a sign of the times that we barely noticed Johnson’s production in 2021, even if it was inflated by many short passes and one extra regular-season game.

I still think Diontae Johnson has a bright future in the NFL, and if he can find the right combination of coaching, quarterbacking and scheming to help in his development as a receiver, there might be a day when we’re shocked when he doesn’t catch 107 passes.

 

 

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Steelers (Late) Report Card for Playoff Loss to Chiefs: F’s Aren’t for “Farewell” Edition

Taken from the gradebook of a teacher who will miss the man who has been his star pupil for 18 years, here is the Steelers Report Card for the AFC Wild Card Loss to the Chiefs.

Ben Roethlisberger, Alex Okafor, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger final game

Alex Oakfor’s commits a roughing the passer penalty on Ben Roethlisberger. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Quarterbacks
Ben Roethlisberger was 4 of 11 (or something like that) at the half and frankly had not played well. He finished the game going 29 of 44 for 215 and two touchdowns. Sure, his last two touchdown drives started from 35 points behind, but you’d never have known that given the way Ben was working the huddle. Grade: C+

Running Backs
Najee Harris did not have a good night, going 29 yards on his 12 carries. Worse yet, his fumble extinguished any chance a Steelers comeback. Benny Snell got work in garbage time and made the most of it. Kalen Ballage got some work too, but didn’t look quite as good. Grade: D

Tight Ends
Pat Freiermuth caught four passes for 25 yards but ran the wrong way on a critical route early in the game. Zach Gentry caught 4 passes, including Ben Roethlisberger’s final toss. Grade: BSteelers, Report Card, grades,

Wide Receivers
When asked if his wide receivers could have stepped up and made more plays, Mike Tomlin’s response was, “Ya think?” Such candor is as brutal as it is uncharacteristic. And it is accurate. Diontae Johnson had several drops, including 1 on third down. Chase Claypool also did not distinguish himself. Sure, some of the passes were not catchable, but reading Roethlisberger’s body language the WR’s were just as much at fault. Grade: F

Offensive Line
The Kansas City Chiefs defense got 7 hits on Roethlisberger and sacked him three times. There looked to be a little push in the running game early on, but that dissipated quickly. A junior varsity performance. Grade: F

Defensive Line
Cam Heyward played well, helping force the fumble and while the unit didn’t get gouged on the ground, it did help give up containment on Mahomes several times and got out foxed in the goal line. Grade: D

Linebackers
T.J. Watt deflected a pass that Devin Bush intercepted and returned fumble for a touchdown. He also sacked Mahomes to save a final score and allow the Steelers to end the game with the ball in Ben Roethlisberger’s hands. Alex Highsmith had a sack. But those Splash plays on that stat sheet mask a unit that got fooled at in the Red Zone once and then gave up touchdowns on two more gadget plays. Grade: D

Secondary
It took Patrick Mahomes 20 minutes to warm up, but then he basically did want he wanted, when he wanted. And the Steelers were powerless to stop him. After the Chiefs scoring run started, Kansas City didn’t punt until there was 4:35 left in the Roethlisberger era. Grade: F

Special Teams
Mecole Hardman had a 48 yard kick off return, but that amounted to nothing as the Steelers intercepted the next pass. Beyond that coverage units were solid and Ray-Ray McCloud did a respectable job of returning. Presley Harvin III punted often and punted well. Chris Boswell was perfect. Honestly, special teams really had no chance to make an impact. Grade: C

Coaching
Mike Tomlin’s response to the first question of the night said it all: “Game plans are irrelevant man. We didn’t execute nearly well enough.”

  • It says here that talent and not coaching drove the Steelers to defeat.

IT also says here that this game shows that the Steelers did not belong in these playoffs to begin with, confirming that the 3rd Wild Card slot is all money and zero competition.

James Washington, Charvarius Ward, Steelers vs Chiefs, Ben Roethlisberger's Last Game

James Washington makes a combat catch against Charvarius Ward. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

But the Report Card grades on performance and results, and both of those were terrible. Grade: F

Unsung Hero Award
He was invisible for almost 3 quarters. He was only targeted 3 times and made two catches yet still led the Steelers receivers in receiving yardage. While that says more about the rest of the receiving corps that it does him, James Washington was giving his all, making combat catches till the very end and for that he wins the Unsung Hero Ward for the 2021 AFC Wild Card Playoff Loss to the Chiefs.

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