With all this offseason talk about the Steelers being committed to building a big, physical team, maybe no one told the more finesse players on their offense. Most football fans don’t associate imposing your will on an opposing defense with airing it out and lofting 40-yard touchdown passes.
But a mercurial wide receiver corps harbors ambitious benchmarks going into the 2023 season, especially the two top dogs who will want to be fed the one ball there is to go around.
“I wanna get over 1,000 yards, go to the Pro Bowl, and I want us to win the Super Bowl,” second-year wideout George Pickens said after Wednesday’s session of OTAs.
“Definitely All-Pro, Pro Bowl, over 1,000 yards, over 100 catches — top 10, top five [production],” Diontae Johnson said after Tuesday’s practice. “Saying that in the most humble way.”
Of course, both receivers alluded to those numbers being out of their control to some extent. Pickens said God will determine exactly how this season goes and Johnson added that he prays about his goals.
Not to be sacrilegious, but the higher powers at work in this respect are Mike Tomlin, Matt Canada and he who throws the ball, Kenny Pickett. The Steelers leaned into a run-first identity the second half of last season — their five highest rushing totals came in the final nine games — and they spent much of this offseason investing in their offensive line.
But if Pickett is afforded premier protection and the running game is forcing defenses to stack the box, perhaps the Steelers will be able to support a couple of prolific pass catchers. They traded away Chase Claypool last year in part to streamline the targets for Johnson and Pickens, and while they acquired veteran Allen Robinson last month, he figures to be a third fiddle, maybe a distant one.
“It’s the fun part of the game when we’re challenging each other to be the best that we can be each and every day,” Robinson said. “As long as I line up with George and with Diontae, I want all of us to be our best. George is gonna push me to be my best, I’m gonna push Diontae to be his best, Diontae’s gonna push George to be his best.”
Robinson referred back to his second year in the league, when both he and fellow Jaguars wideout Allen Hurns surpassed 1,000 receiving yards. He’s not involved in all team activities yet as he recovers from foot surgery that ended his 2022 season with the Rams, but Robinson is playing a vital role anyway.
It’s commonplace at practice to see Robinson and Pickens walking off the field together after drills, a couple of 6-foot-3 second-round picks who were only 20 years old when they wrapped up their college careers. Both are known to make ridiculous grabs look routine, and both have been enjoying each other’s company in the early days of their working relationship.
“I can understand what the learning curve is like, just as far as learning some of the nuances within the game,” Robinson said. “And just being able to kind of over-communicate to him and some of the other guys in the room as we’re moving along, with small and subtle things that will help us steadily be able to improve, it’s exciting.”
Robinson is getting a coach’s view from the sideline at this point, passing on what he sees to Pickens as the offense goes through competitive periods against the defense. Pickens might ask Robinson how to attack a particular coverage, how to beat a defender based on how the cornerback is playing his leverage, or the best way to set up a certain route and when to break it off.
For Johnson, route-running is second nature at this point in his career. Nonetheless, he had a disappointing season in 2022, one that saw him playing without Ben Roethlisberger and alongside a new running mate in Pickens. Johnson had the fewest yards per catch, fewest yards per target and second-fewest yards per game of his career. Oh, and there was that whole issue of not catching a single touchdown that led to frustration throughout the year.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve tried to change much. Really just trying to stay more conditioned,” Johnson said of his offseason routine. “I’ve been trying to run a little more because I don’t come out [of the game], obviously. That’s pretty much it. Focusing on the top of the route, catching the ball, little stuff I can always get better at in really every aspect of my game.”
He’ll need to improve for any number of reasons. Johnson cashed in on his talent last August and now has the third-highest salary cap hit on the team, and being the highest-paid player on a youthful offense means matching that money with performance. Pickett’s development is crucial, too, and especially his rapport with his receivers.
And if Johnson hopes to continue being the No. 1 option in Pittsburgh, he must hold off the young buck oozing with potential. Pickens is an alpha dog himself,and showed flashes as a rookie of being that go-to guy who’s open even when he’s covered. To his credit, Pickens doesn’t sound like a squeaky wheel greasing the ear of his quarterback or coordinator. As he put it, “I just kinda let my game do the talking.”
“We don’t know how the targets and stuff are gonna go,” Pickens admitted. “But as far as winning, I know everybody’s gonna pitch in on that.”