Rookie WR fol­low­ing JuJu’s path

John­son hopes to have sim­i­lar re­sults to Smith-Schuster’s 2017

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Joe Rut­ter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Pittsburgh Steel­ers would be thrilled if Dion­tae John­son could du­pli­cate JuJu SmithSchus­ter’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 SmithSchus­ter 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.”

BARRY REEGER/PILOTONLIN­E.COM

Pittsburgh Steel­ers wide re­ceiver Dion­tae John­son (18) looks to make a touch­down catch in front of Kansas City Chiefs corner­back Herb Miller (34) in the sec­ond half of Aug. 17 in Pittsburgh. It was ruled a touch­down catch and was ver­i­fied on re­view.

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