PITTSBURGH (AP)Diontae Johnson’s right hamstring is on the mend.
The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver is hopeful his return can help an offense that’s at times looked lost without him.
Johnson practiced on Wednesday, his first full practice since tweaking the hamstring in a season-opening loss to San Francisco on Sept. 10. While Johnson remains on injured reserve, he’s optimistic he’ll be ready by Sunday when Pittsburgh (3-2) heads to the West Coast to face the Los Angeles Rams (3-3).
Stressing he’s “doing anything I can to be ready,” Johnson is hopeful he can help provide a spark to an offense that is near the bottom of the NFL in most major categories, including scoring (30th), total yards (30th) and yards passing (27th).
Johnson, who has led the Steelers in receptions and receiving yards in three of his four seasons, thinks he could “take a lot off the plate” of second-year wide receiver George Pickens, who has received the brunt of the attention from opponents in Johnson’s absence.
“George is going to be George out there,” Johnson said. “Me and him on the field at the same time, we feed off each other. When he makes a play, I make a play. I love that. I love when he makes a play. That gets me hype and vice versa.”
Pickens is coming off one of the best games of his career, a six-reception, 130-yard gem in a victory over Baltimore on Oct. 8 that included the go-ahead 41-yard touchdown in the final minutes, The score was set up by the Ravens’ curious decision to leave the 6-foot-4 Pickens in single coverage, a rarity for Pickens with Johnson out of the lineup.
That could change against the Rams, particularly if tight end Pat Freiermuth – who missed the Ravens game with a hamstring injury – is able to go. If Freiermuth is healthy, the Steelers would have all of their starting skill position players available to quarterback Kenny Pickett for the first time since Johnson tumbled to the turf early in the third quarter against San Francisco.
“We can play fast knowing Kenny is comfortable and he’s got his guys back,” Johnson said.
Something that’s been an issue for the Steelers in four of their five games so far. Pittsburgh has gotten by thanks to the remarkable play of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, who almost single-handedly turned the game in wins over Cleveland and Baltimore. It’s not sustainable and the Steelers – who have trailed in every game so far – know it.
“Really we’ve just got to start fast,” Johnson said. “That’s been our main focus is starting fast. If we don’t come out and start fast, we have to play behind the sticks and it’s going to be a tough, long game. But if we come out there and start fast, everything will be fine.”
The meticulous Johnson, a Pro Bowler in 2021 when he caught a career-high 107 passes, is an expert route runner who has made a career of finding ways to get open in tight spaces. It’s an element Pittsburgh has lacked. Pickens is a physical marvel more comfortable – and better utilized – going deep. Veteran Allen Robinson is a possession-type receiver. Johnson can do both.
“His ability to get separation and get open is awesome,” Pickett said.
Particularly if he can make Pickett’s job a little easier. The second-year starter is 30th in the league in completion rate (59.7 percent), a dip from 63% as a rookie in 2022.
“It starts with routes and timing and spacing, it all works together,” Pickett said. “That’s always the key in the pass game: everything working together, protection and guys running the right routes and I got to put the ball where it needs to be. So we got to get right in those three phases and (we) expect those numbers to go up.”
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