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Why Calvin Austin III, not Allen Robinson, should take Diontae Johnson’s snaps

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off an abysmal start to the 2023 regular season after their 30-7 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1. It was so bad, many fans are now doubting if the high hopes they had after an eventual offseason and preseason were nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

While the start of the season wasn’t what anyone expected, there was more to the loss last Sunday at Acrisure Stadium than the end result, and that would be injuries. The Steelers lost Cam Heyward early in the game to a groin injury, an injury which has landed Heyward on Injured Reserve (IR) and having to undergo surgery to have the groin repaired. Outside of Heyward, wide receiver Diontae Johnson also left the game with a hamstring injury, an injury which is likely to sideline him for a few weeks.

At this point, the Steelers are going to be forced to try and replace these players on game days. Replacing Heyward is no easy task. In fact, Mike Tomlin spoke Tuesday during his press conference how this is not a one man job, but a group effort to replace the defensive captain. But for Johnson, the Steelers might be better equipped to replace what he does for the team’s offense.

Some fans are hoping the team will take Allen Robinson and move him into Johnson’s spot on the outside opposite George Pickens and have hope they can find a recipe for success. I get this thought process, but for me the answer is not only to try and mirror the skill set of Johnson, but to minimize the “moving parts” on a young offense.

When thinking about replacing Johnson through this lens, the answer is simple. In my opinion, the Steelers keep Pickens in his normal role, keep Robinson primarily in the slot, and move Calvin Austin III into Johnson’s role.

Most people see the diminutive Austin and immediately think the same thing — slot receiver. However, Austin played primarily outside when at Memphis and is best utilized with his speed on full display working on the perimeter. Johnson rarely gets moved into the slot, which would bode well for Austin sliding into his role on the offense.

What does Johnson provide for the offense on a game-to-game basis? The ability to get open/separate. Austin might not be as shifty as Johnson, but his straight line speed will do plenty to allow him to create separation. If a defensive back wants to press Austin at the line of scrimmage, send him on a vertical route to show off his sub-4.4 speed and it won’t take long for the defense to adjust. It doesn’t even matter if the attempts on these deep routes are completed, Just the threat to go deep with Austin on the outside regularly will open up routes underneath.

Is Austin ready for this increased role? That’s debatable, but there’s also no way to find out until you try.

To me, putting Austin in Johnson’s role makes the most sense based on not having to re-write the offense and also move receivers out of positions they just spent two months attempting to perfect.

What about the role Austin had in Week 1? Who will take over those duties with jet sweep motion and filling in as a WR4? That is where Gunner Olszewski comes into the equation. Gunner has proven he can handle those duties.

This isn’t perfect scenario, far from it. But this could be the smoothest transition in the short term for the Steelers offense. What would the results look like? Best-case scenario is Austin uses his speed to become a major problem in a one-on-one situation, which is likely to happen with George Pickens getting more attention without Johnson in the lineup. Worst-case scenario is Austin’s speed doesn’t translate and the offense continues to struggle in the passing game.

It will be interesting to see how things play out with the offense as they attempt to fill the gaps. What do you think? How should the Steelers fill the void left at the wide receiver position? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to stay tuned to SCN for the latest news and updates on the Steelers as they head into Week 2.

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