It seems likely that Diontae Johnson will miss some time with an injury, and the Steelers once seemingly deep receiver room may quickly be tested. The passing game was miserable in Week 1, and losing a core target like Johsnon will only amplify those issues. That said, I wouldn’t be so quick to look to the free agent market for a new receiver.
The Steelers still have three quality starting receivers that they can use in Allen Robinson, Goerge Pickens, and Calvin Austin. On the surface, I am more than content with those three divvying up Johnson’s role. That does come with some caveats though.
The Steelers need to gameplan better
Johnson is the best natural “X” receiver for the Steelers. These pass catchers usually have sharp routes and the ability to make plays after the catch as well as being natural deep threats. Think of a prime Antonio Brown. He wasn’t the proverbial deep threat like Mike Wallace was, but he could win there while providing a stable target underneath.
There isn’t a one-for-one replacement there, but I think it would best suit Pickens to take up that role. He showed in the preseason as well as week one that he can run sharper routes and doesn’t just have to win deep. The vertical game can and should still be present, but moving Pickens to the X spot would give him the most opportunities to be an impact player.
The “Z” spot that he currently occupies (again, think of Wallace here) can go to Austin. The second-year receiver saw a lot of action in week one, and while he didn’t get to bust off a big play, he was dependable. His natural speed makes him an obvious choice to serve as the deep threat.
Robinson, meanwhile, can maintain his role as the big slot, making tough catches and picking out critical yards. That doesn’t mean you can’t rotate, as every receiver can feasibly play any of those spots, but this seems like the best solution on paper.
That doesn’t mean the Steelers can stay as is
Where this will become an issue is if the Steelers decide to keep running the offense as they did last week. There needs to be a more vertical element in the passing game. The X shouldn’t just be running drags, especially if Pickens is going to take on that spot. Take some deep shots that will stress a defense.
As contrary as it may sound, the Steelers offense needs to get more flexible despite losing its top target. This goes against Matt Canada’s offensive desires, but it gives the team a happy medium of players who fit their roles and are still being used effectively.
If the team were to go outside of the organization, I would only be looking for a practice squad option, specifically an established veteran that can work in the X. A name that sticks out is T.Y. Hilton, as he could provide insurance for that role, be elevated if need be, and is still in search of a home. That said, getting a free agent shouldn’t be the top priority.
While losing Johnson stinks, there are ways to get around it. In particular, this team has three receivers that should be the top replacement options. A free agent isn’t out of the question, but that should be on the practice squad first as opposed to getting them on the active roster.