By WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Diontae Johnson doesn’t know exactly what happened.
One minute the Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver was racing upfield early in the third quarter against San Francisco last Sunday with the ball in his hands, the next he was making his way down the tunnel with a member of the training staff, his right hamstring throbbing and his immediate future seriously in doubt.
“I was just trying to make a play,” Johnson said Thursday. “I put my foot in the ground and then just kind of fell.”
While Johnson believes his hamstring is getting better, he won’t play on Monday night when Pittsburgh (0-1) hosts Cleveland (1-0). There is no timetable for his return, meaning the Steelers will have to try to bounce back after getting drilled by the 49ers without a player who’s averaged 85 receptions since breaking into the league in 2019.
“It’s the first game,” Johnson said. “Didn’t really get to do what I wanted to do either.”
Namely, reach the end zone.
Johnson spent the offseason trying to figure out how he spent 17 weeks trying — and failing — to reach the end zone. It got to a point where Kenny Pickett attempted to force-feed Johnson the ball in the regular-season finale against Cleveland in hopes of changing the “zero” in the touchdown column to a crooked number.
It didn’t happen. And now it seems the wait will be extended at least one week and possibly more.
“It’s frustrating,” Johnson said. “But at the same time, my teammates keep me up, my little son keeps me up. I can’t just be in a bad mood or anything like that, because there’s nothing I can do about the situation.”
Other than rehab and hope two players at the end of the career spectrum can help pick up the slack.
Calvin Austin missed his entire rookie season a year ago with a Lisfranc injury in his left foot. He spent training camp trying to make up for lost time, showcasing the elite speed that made the Steelers so high on him in the 2022 draft. He was busy in his first regular-season game, catching six passes for 37 yards while earning praise from Pickett for always being where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.
Pickett and Austin developed that rapport as fellow rookies last summer and essentially picked up where they left off before Austin was hurt.
It hasn’t quite been the same for Allen Robinson. The Steelers acquired the now 30-year-old from the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason, hoping he could take on a role as a mentor to Pittsburgh’s very young wide receivers room — Austin and 22-year-old George Pickens chief among them — while occasionally helping out on the field.
Occasionally may morph into frequently with Johnson out. He played 56 snaps and hauled in five passes for 64 yards, his most productive game yardage-wise in two years. Three of those catches and five of his eight targets came after Johnson’s exit.
Not bad for a 10-year veteran coming off an injury-filled season with the Rams. He appeared in just 10 games and his average yards per game (33.9) was a career low.
A 31-yard catch-and-run against the 49ers offered proof that the foot issue that sent him to injured reserve is no longer a problem. It also suggested that there’s a little life — maybe more than a little — in the legs that topped 1,000 yards receiving in a season three times while playing for teams (Jacksonville and Chicago) not exactly known for their passing prowess.
Robinson isn’t particularly interested in looking in the rearview mirror. Ask him if he has something to prove and instead he pivots towards the things the Steelers signed him to do that won’t show up in a stat sheet: namely becoming an effective blocker on the edge and being the experienced pro to Austin, Pickens and others that he didn’t have during his early days in the league in Jacksonville a decade ago.
“If I ever could get people brain food as far as experience and things that I’ve been through, you know, I’ve tried to do that,” he said.
Maybe because he now knows what he’s missing. He was 21 when the Jaguars took him in the second round of the 2014 draft. He soon found himself in a group that included Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee. None of them were older than 23.
“I wish I had somebody (back then) just give me some reinforcement,” Robinson said.
In a way, Robinson had to learn on his own. Now he’s on the other side of things. Yes, he wants to be involved in the passing game. He also knows he wasn’t brought into to fill up the stat sheet, not on an offense where Johnson is the only starting skill position player older than 25.
That doesn’t mean he thinks those days are behind him. The opener suggested they’re not. Not completely.
“I was able to make some plays (against the 49ers), which as a receiver is what you want to do,” he said. “But it’s not just about making some plays. It’s about doing whatever it takes for us to get that win.”
NOTES: The Steelers placed DT Cam Heyward on injured reserve Thursday after having groin surgery. The 13-year veteran will miss at least four games.