The Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver room during the 2023 season became a lightning rod for controversy, as antics from George Pickens and Diontae Johnson became stories. Pickens infamously deleted any mention of the Steelers on his Instagram after the team beat the Tennessee Titans, but he only made two catches for minus one yard. The second-year receiver also received a ton of flack for not blocking on a play that could’ve resulted in a touchdown for Jaylen Warren against the Indianapolis Colts. Johnson was also called out for poor effort during a Week 12 game against the Cincinnati Bengals when he made little effort to recover a fumble.
The low discipline level displayed by the group in 2023, not limited to the previous actions listed by Johnson and Pickens, led to the dismissal of wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson. After life under Matt Canada and the two-headed monster coordinator of Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan, the group will have former Atlanta Falcons Head Coach Arthur Smith running the show. He is expected to bring a new level of accountability to the offense.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette veteran and Steelers beat writer Gerry Dulac doesn’t think a change in position coaches or coordinators will help fix the flawed group. He wrote a very poignant response to a reader asking if any wide receiver coaches or Smith could help solve the effort and attitude problem.
“Nobody does,” he wrote.” Dulac wrote. “All those WRs are divas (or wanna-be divas) who think they should get the ball and nobody else. Smith can improve the production; I can’t promise an attitude change. That comes from the top.”
The Steelers could certainly use the improvement in production from their wide receiver room. Pickens led the team with 1,140 yards on 63 receptions. Johnson, who missed four games with a hamstring injury, finished second with 717 yards on 51 receptions. Pittsburgh got next to no production from the rest of the group.
Veteran Allen Robinson II added an experienced voice to a young room, but had only 280 receiving yards and didn’t score a touchdown. Speedster Calvin Austin III caught the second-longest touchdown of the season for the team in Week 3, but had minimal impact as the season wore on.
Pittsburgh does have some receiving threats at other positions, like Pat Freiermuth and running backs Jaylen Warren and Najee Harris, but the team will need a more dependable third receiver if the offense is going to take a significant step up in 2024. Robinson is likely gone, as he’ll be owed $11.9 million for the season and the team can step away for a dead cap number of slightly less than $2 million, per Spotrac.
Steelers’ Tomlin Needs To Evolve In Dealing With “Diva Receivers”
Tomlin was lauded by franchise President Art Rooney II in his postseason media availabilities for his ability to connect with players as one of the best coaches in the NFL. Dulac seemed to take a shot at his ability to connect with and understand the issues in the receiver room. Tomlin didn’t seem to have a problem benching Martavis Bryant for social media activity in 2017 but in 2023 he never used that tactic.
Despite calls for Pickens to sit at points during the season, he never missed a game. Tomlin initially defended Pickens’ antics, caulking it up to frustration. He eventually called him out in the media for talking too much when the team was losing. For Johnson, the solution to his perceived effort problem in Cincinnati was to give an apology to the team and a second chance to rewrite the play with the media.
There’s no secret that Pickens and Johnson are talented players. Both have seasons in their career with over 1,000 yards now. They both need to do more to show they’re committed to the team and not their numbers. Tomlin has to find a better way to get that message across.
Do you agree with Dulac that this only changes from the top? Did Tomlin do enough from a discipline standpoint with Johnson and Pickens in 2023?