The Steelers have had significant difficulty moving the ball with any sort of consistency this season. Matt Canada's play-calling has been a huge reason for that, as has the sub-par offensive line play, the inconsistent play from Kenny Pickett, and the lack of a viable running game. However, with the Steelers getting time to hopefully work through some of those issues during the bye week, and the return of one of their most important offensive players, better times may be on the horizon.
The Steelers have an underrated group of weapons at Kenny Pickett's disposal when the group is at full health. George Pickens is the shiny toy that everyone will look to, due to his ability to make highlight reel catches. Along with him, the team possesses two running backs that complement each other well in Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, an athletic speedster in the slot in Calvin Austin III, and one of the deepest tight end rooms in the NFL, with Pat Freiermuth, Darnell Washington, and Connor Heyward.
However, the team's most important weapon on offense is the one that the team has been missing since midway through their week one matchup with the San Francisco 49ers, Diontae Johnson.
The Steelers have struggled to create separation since Johnson got hurt
Throughout the offseason, whenever anyone talked about the growth of Kenny Pickett and the potential for him to take the leap this year, one of the leading reasons was that he had George Pickens at his disposal, and the two were ready to take the league by storm. Pickens is an extremely talented receiver and is deserving of the praise due to his ability to make highlight catches and hit home runs for the offense, but he is not a complete wide receiver yet.
As we've seen thus far this year, the Steelers have struggled to create separation and sustain drives. Due to a lack of separation, Pickett has seen tougher throwing windows, and the team has seen many of their drives stall as a result of this. Much of this has been due to Canada's play design, but part of it is due to the players at the team's disposal.
Pickens is tremendous at making contested catches but does not create tons of separation, and runs most of his routes along the sidelines. Calvin Austin is a nice weapon for the Steelers and possesses elite speed, but he has been thrust into a higher role and thus is seeing more difficult coverage. Allen Robinson, meanwhile, is an extremely reliable veteran receiver with good hands, but he doesn't possess the speed or quickness that he once did and thus is mostly just a possession receiver.
This is not a knock on any of these players, as the traits they all have are very valuable for the role that they are on the team to play. However, with Johnson out, the importance of his ability to separate has really shown itself.
Diontae Johnson is an Elite Route Runner, and his absence has hurt the Offense
Diontae Johnson's ability to separate from defenders is truly among the best in the league. While many knocked him for his lack of touchdowns and his past struggles with drops, it is impossible to ignore his ability to run routes. It is a truly underrated aspect of his game and has become overshadowed by the aforementioned issues he's faced
While Pickens is the home run hitter on the offense, Johnson is the guy they look to when they need to move the sticks. He can run routes in the middle of the field or along the boundary, which is something the team hasn't seen much of since he's gotten hurt. In his absence, the offense has featured mainly checkdowns, deep shots, and sideline passes, with a complete abandonment of intermediate passes down the middle -- an area in which he excels.
With Johnson back, each of the team's other receivers will see easier coverage or less attention and will give Pickett another weapon to use in the passing game. Despite only playing about half of the game in Week 1, Johnson racked up 6 targets, which should come as no surprise, as he has been among the league leaders in targets in each of the last 3 seasons.
That is no mistake either, as his route running has resulted in him being much more open than many other receivers, and makes for much easier throws for his quarterback. It's for this reason that Johnson is so integral to the Steelers, particularly on third down, in order to move the chains and keep the team on the field.
Look for the Steelers to begin using the middle of the field more with Johnson back, and his ability to generate targets and make men miss will hopefully help the Steelers generate longer drives. If that's the case this will open up a lot more for the offense, as it will take attention away from George Pickens, and hopefully will help the team establish the run game a little more.
Johnson's return should help Pickett and the rest of the Steelers' offense, and hopefully limit the damage of lackluster playcalling.