For the first time as a starting quarterback, Kenny Pickett is dealing with a somewhat-openly frustrated wide receiver. It’s not going to be the last time.
Diontae Johnson has had not only his production drop in recent weeks, but also his potential to produce.
Over the last two games, the Steelers’ top wideout has been targeted only ten times — five in each game. And, while Johnson has handled the lack of targets professionally, every receiver wants the ball, especially one viewed as the team’s best.
“I don’t really want to speak too much on that. A lot of that stuff is out of my control. I know it looks like I don’t be involved like that, but it is what it is. It’s the situation I’m in, so I’ve got to deal with it.”
“Any football player would be frustrated. I’ve just got to keep playing.”
On Wednesday, Pickett shed some light on what’s happening to Johnson, and what has him bothered.
“I mean, like, if he's getting doubled, man, it's tough,” Pickett said Wednesday. “Tough to get him the ball. And they know how great of a player he is. So I think if we move him around and don't keep him in the same spot, I think it's a way to give him some opportunities.
“If they're playing man with the safety over top leading to his side or their cloud and a lot to his side, I mean, they're definitely scheming to take him away.
A day earlier, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin echoed that viewpoint.
“Let's be frank, okay? Diontae is a known commodity within the group,” Tomlin said. “People are going to have an agenda to minimize his impact on the game, particularly in significant moments, possession-down, redzone football.
“When you’ve got a guy that's been a Pro Bowler — and really, he's kind of the only one when you’ve got a young group — that's a component of it. So, how do you open up opportunities for a guy like that? Other guys make plays.”
And that’s where the Steelers will turn for some immediate relief for Johnson — to its other pass catchers. Most notably, rookie wideout George Pickens.
“He does a lot of great things for us, intermediate level,” Pickett said of Pickens. “As his game continues to grow, we'll continue to grow as an offense.”
But, as of right now, the targets do need to pick up for a player who earned an $18 million per year contract extension this offseason, who had 33 targets n the season’s first three weeks, and one who the Steelers need, in a desperate way, to produce more than the touchdown-less season he’s put up to this point.
Pickett, however, maintains that Johnson’s demeanor has been solid through the struggles.
“He's a smart player, and we'll come off the field, and he's like ‘they're over the top or they're doubling’ him up. So he knows. He's a great player and he wants to help us win, so we'll get him in some spots to be successful.”
The Steelers, now at 3-7, likely had any hopes at a postseason dashed Sunday with there 37-30 loss to Cincinnati. So now, this season — with a 1 percent chance of the playoffs being reached — becomes about growth, particularly for an offense looking to gel with numerous young players.
The players, including Pickett, won’t admit that, and rightfully so. But figuring out what works, and how to beat what opposing defenses throw at this offense, is key.
“I mean, at this point, we need to do whatever we can to win,” Pickett said. “So we all have be prepared for whatever (offensive coordinator Matt Canada) throws at us, to come ready to work and be open to learning these things and adjusting on the fly, which I think we've done a good job of.
“We definitely can improve on as we go.”