The Steelers have to start Mason Rudolph after Ben Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury. They don't, however, have to start rookie Diontae Johnson Sunday in San Francisco against the 49ers.
But they are.
"They just put me in and told me I'm the starter from here on out," Johnson told reporters Friday at the Rooney Complex. "I just gotta keep executing and making plays, helping the team win."
The Steelers' receiving corps could use a whole lot of that "executing and making plays" stuff Johnson mentions. Because to this point, it hasn't happened, and that deficiency has contributed to the team's 0-2 start.
No. 1 receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has 11 catches for 162 yards and no touchdowns on the year. Tight end Vance McDonald is second with nine catches for 78 yards and two scores. No other receiver has over 75 yards or a touchdown. Running back James Conner is actually tied for third in receptions with Ryan Switzer at seven, and he's fourth in yards with 56.
Coming off a season where the team had both Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown eclipse 100 receptions and 1,250 yards? Yeah, that's not going to cut it.
Hence the turn to Johnson, the team's third-round pick in 2019 out of Toledo, who did this last week in the team's 28-26 loss against the Seahawks:
Yeah, you're going to want to see that one again from a better angle:
That's welcome, but ultimately, Johnson's not known for his comeback, falling-down, tipped circus catches like that one. In fact, his hands mark his biggest red flag, as he's tallied two drops already on the season on nine targets. But he does bring something extra-special to the field with his quickness and his ability to change speed. He's skittish and slippery — and it's something that even the team's highest-level veterans are noticing.
"He has some stuff with him as far as being quick-twitch and being able to stop and start that's special," Joe Haden was saying of Johnson. "I think that his route running is very, very good. So I've just been trying to work my releases against him, work my press technique and [just] working that because I think he has the best releases and is the quickest off the line on our team.
"Me just getting that work with him, I think is helpful."
That's a two-time Pro Bowl, one-time second-team All-Pro player in Haden saying that. At 30 years old in his 10th year in the league, Haden recognizes Johnson's potential and his abilities on the field.
But they'll mean little if Rudolph can't get him the ball. Like Johnson, Rudolph strolls into unfamiliar, pressure-laden territory Sunday against the undefeated 49ers. Rudolph's teammates, however, are confident.
"It was a good week," Smith-Schuster was saying Friday after practice. "It was a great week, for having him be out there for his first start, so it'll be amazing to see what he does.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Terrell Edmunds echoed those sentiments.
"He's good," Edmunds said of Rudolph. "I mean, I know he has a lot on his plate, but he's done really well with his approach. He's done very well with at least not appearing overwhelmed. At the same time, I know that he's ready and he's going to do everything he can to come out and play the best game that he can, so we just gotta show him that we have his back."
Like Rudolph, Edmunds was thrust into starting duties before many expected. As a rookie last season, Edmunds made 15 starts and led the team with 1,190 snaps, a move outside the norm for the Steelers organization.
So did he have any advice for Rudolph?
"I talk to him [like], 'It's going to be a long game. And it's also a long season. Don't let one play affect the rest of the game,'" Edmunds said. "Because the next play has to happen, and regardless if you do anything wrong that one play, you gotta come out and perform to your best on that next play. Pretty much, [I] just tell him that it's a long game, keep on pushing, and that I believe in him."
The Steelers clearly believe in Rudolph — and in Johnson.
Now it's up to those two to prove them right.
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