Steelers rookie WR Diontae Johnson hopes to follow Smith-Schuster’s path
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Pittsburgh Steelers would be thrilled if Diontae Johnson could duplicate JuJu Smith-Schuster’s rookie regular season from 2017.
So far, the third-round draft pick from Toledo is having a similar start to his NFL career, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Smith-Schuster dealt with three injuries — concussion, ankle and leg — in his first NFL preseason before breaking out with 58 catches and a team rookie-record 917 yards.
Johnson has experienced difficulty staying on the field in his first summer as an NFL player. Hamstring and hip injuries have beset Johnson, who missed his second preseason game Sunday night when the Steelers played the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium.
Johnson also missed the preseason opener but played last weekend and caught a touchdown pass against Kansas City.
With Smith-Schuster entrenched as the No. 1 receiver this year and James Washington and veteran Donte Moncrief leading the competition for the second starting job, Johnson will have to force his way onto the field.
It’s a path Smith-Schuster took in 2017 when he began the year playing behind Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant. He slowly earned more playing time and used a strong second half of the season to outproduce Bryant.
Smith-Schuster’s advice to Johnson?
“Just know your assignments, know your plays, know where you’re supposed to be at the right time,” he said earlier this week. “When I was here (as a rookie), I had a great receiver like AB to take those double coverages. I was able to make a name for myself under him, and I think Diontae has the same thing with Moncrief, me and even James going into his second year.
“That’s two, three guys who are going to make a name for themselves.”
Washington is having his second strong preseason with eight catches for 162 yards and a touchdown at the midpoint of the exhibition schedule. He led the Steelers in receiving yards in each of the first two games.
He was in Johnson’s shoes last season but didn’t carry over his preseason success into the regular season, finishing with 16 catches for 217 yards.
“Stay positive and don’t let anything get you down,” Washington said. “You have to stay positive and trust in yourself.”
Johnson put his potential on display in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 17-7 victory against the Chiefs. With the Steelers holding a 10-7 lead and undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges playing quarterback, Johnson had two catches on a 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. He had a 14-yard reception on a third-and-5 early in the drive, and he capped it with a 24-yard touchdown reception.
Johnson finished with three catches on five targets for 46 yards. He had another 24-yard score negated early in the fourth quarter when he was called for offensive pass interference.
“I was supposed to have two,” Johnson said, shaking his head.
After he sat out the preseason opener, Johnson played 45 snaps against the Chiefs, the most of any offensive player.
“I played pretty well coming off that little injury I had,” Johnson said. “There’s still room to improve. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
That Johnson spent much of the past week unable to practice didn’t bode well for showing the coaches they can rely on him. Johnson needs to display the type of consistency Smith-Schuster flashed during his rookie season.
After overcoming his preseason injuries two years ago, Smith-Schuster played in 14 games, missing one to injury and one to suspension.
This year, it’s Johnson’s turn to show he can stay on the field. His final chance in the preseason will come Thursday night at Carolina.
“Just because I make a play here and there doesn’t make it cool and whatnot,” he said. “I’m just trying to progress and show them that I can continue to improve.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .