Diontae Johnson's Emergence Could Give Steelers Boost With Healthy Receiving Core

Noah Strackbein

PITTSBURGH -- In an offense that has seen different stars come out on a week-to-week basis, the Steelers have found consistency in guys they weren't expecting to. With JuJu Smith-Schuster sidelined with a knee injury since Week 11, one of those consistent playmakers has been James Washington. 

His growing connection with Devlin Hodges has become a vital part of the Steelers game plan. Their rookie quarterback and second-year receiver have found success in recent weeks as the team started to find traction on the offensive side of the ball. 

"Every week it's like his experience is just growing," said Washington on Hodges' growth. "Plus, he's got Ben in his ear every game. When Ben comes to the locker room, he's over there mentoring stuff to him so he's always sharing his words of advice with him."

The undrafted quarterback has made three NFL starts with limited talent around him. The injuries to offensive stars like Smith-Schuster, James Conner and Vance McDonald have forced others to step into bigger roles than their status warrants. 

So far, named like Washington and Diontae Johnson have stepped up in major ways. With a punt return and receiving touchdown in Week 14, Johnson compiled the best game of his short NFL career. 

Mike Tomlin said last Tuesday that Johnson will be ready for December football after slowing down in previous weeks. His 60 yards and a touchdown through the air was a strong bounce-back from his dip in production. Now, Washington says he's looking to ride it out. 

"I wouldn't say more confident but it feels like he's excited to get back out there and add to what he did this past week," Washington said. "When you've got a guy like that it keeps everybody hungry because everybody wants to emerge and grow in there game, so it's a plus for us." 

The Steelers could have Smith-Schuster back on the field this Sunday as the receiver returned to practice. So far, no word has been said on whether or not the wideout is expected to suit up against the Bills, but with expectations high the Steelers are hoping for the best. 

"It doesn't really effect things for me. I feel like the defense will have to play us a lot more honestly," Washington said. "More straight-up, man-up.

"Everyone is going to have to play us man-up. If you double one guy, you never know. We've got Diontae, we've got Dion, we've got all these guys that can go off at any moment."

Washington can't control his teammate's status for Week 15. He also doesn't have a say over the weather. With cold and rainy weather on the horizon for Sunday, Heinz Field won't be a particularly easy place to catch a football - and with an uneasy response, Washington knows it. 

"You can't control the weather, it's what I've always been told," Washington said. "So, we got to go out there like every other week and play to our abilities."

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