I guess I should have seen it coming. It may have been my black and gold colored glasses that hindered me from seeing the truth with more clarity.
The truth is the Pittsburgh Steelers were forced to part ways with the most productive wide receiver in their history after what started as a tantrum turned into the most mind numbing level of insanity in team history. Left with no other option, the Steelers traded the malcontent and moved on. There was bound to be growing pains.
Even with the loss of their best receiver, the cupboard was hardly bare or devoid of talent. JuJu Smith-Schuster exploded on the scene as the most productive young receiver in NFL history, and has displayed a knack for long touchdown receptions. Blessed with a grown man's physique and the gregarious nature of a young adult, JuJu has displayed a renewed focus on his maturity as he ascends to the mantle of WR1. His team first attitude has been refreshing and much needed.
The team also had promising WR James Washington returning for his second season. I say promising based on his uptick in late season production during his rookie campaign. He struggled mightily to gain separation against NFL caliber cornerbacks after feasting on the weaker defenders in the Big 12. To make matters worse, Washington appeared unable to develop a rapport with Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger. Finally, late in the season, the star QB and the young receiver seemed on the verge of developing some chemistry. This created a modicum of hope heading into the off season.
The Steelers made two more additions during the off season to round out the receiver group. They signed talented but inconsistent free agent WR Donte Moncrief to bolster the group, then they drafted WR Diontae Johnson from Toledo in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. To say there has been mixed results would be a huge understatement.
First, the good news. Diontae Johnson looks like a bonafide NFL wide receiver, maybe even one with star potential. I realize his career is in it's infancy stages, and he hasn't proven anything yet, but I am excited by what I have seen thus far.
I was unable to attend training camp this year, but I watched what I could online. During a player interview with Tunch and Wolf, I was focused on some receiver drills taking place in the background. I was so impressed by what I was seeing I had to yell for my wife to come take a look.
One of the smaller receivers that I didn't recognize would allow the football to get deep in his zone and then pluck it out of the air at the last instant. I had to utilize the camp roster list to identify the player. It was Diontae Johnson. I hadn't witnessed that type of hand eye coordination since the aforementioned malcontent. Then his preseason performances revealed exception change of direction abilities and short area quickness. It was apparent why the Steelers thought so highly of him. His rookie season has included the inevitable learning curve, but so far so good.
Now for the bad news. I have struggled to recall a Steelers player having a worse start to his Steelers career than Donte Moncrief. His performance against the New England Patriots on opening night was historically bad, almost taking on biblical proportions. He singlehandedly thwarted multiple drives with untimely drops, including at least one potential touchdown against a Patriots defense that has only given up one so far this season.
Then he allowed a Mason Rudolph pass to go through his hands, bounce off his helmet, and eventually be intercepted by the Seattle Seahawks in his second game. Another game changing mistake which helped set up a Seahawks touchdown in another heartbreakingly close loss for the Steelers. The Steelers had seen enough and Moncrief's playing time disappeared.
A finger injury could be a culprit to explain his struggles, but it's now or never for Moncrief. Evidence came out recently that suggests the Steelers may have more incentive to release him than there is to keep him. Still only 26 years young and blessed with a powerful build and above average speed, Moncrief yet again faces an uphill climb to establish himself as a quality receiver without the services of a experienced star QB. Time waits for no man, so he better strike while the iron is hot.
The greatest unknown in this receiver group may just be James Washington. Reportedly Washington will return to the field this week after missing the Los Angeles Chargers game due to a shoulder injury. His return to action would be quicker than originally estimated, and not a moment too soon.
The Steelers need Washington to step up in a big way. Not only to punish opposing defenses for any additional coverages rolled JuJu's direction, but also to lessen the load on rookie Diontae Johnson and help create more favorable matchups for Johnson's still developing game.
Washington may be running out of excuses. He will undoubtedly see plenty of opportunities on the field. He will have his record breaking partner in crime from college, Mason Rudolph, throwing him the ball. No need to develop chemistry or build trust, the duo must learn to adjust to the smaller throwing windows of the NFL. Whether they like it or not, the tandem holds any hope for Steelers team success this season in the palms of their hands.