Steelers faced with playing better offensively without Johnson

Not nearly good enough.

That has been the message from everyone offensively and defensively this week following the Steelers' 30-7 loss in their regular season opener last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

The Steelers will get an opportunity to do something about that when they host the Cleveland Browns Monday night at Acrisure Stadium, but it won't be an easy task, either.

The Browns held Joe Burrow and the Bengals to just 67 gross passing yards in a 24-3 win over Cincinnati last week.

And the Steelers and offensive coordinator Matt Canada will be tasked with solving that defense without the presence of former All-Pro receiver Diontae Johnson.

Johnson left last week's game against the 49ers soon after halftime with a hamstring injury that will sideline him for Monday night's game.

That means the Steelers will be counting on more from second-year pro Calvin Austin III, who was playing in his first career NFL game against the 49ers, and newcomer Allen Robinson to help offset the loss of Johnson.

"All of our wideouts are going to have their roles are going to increase," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada on Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "That's going to be part of the deal. Calvin, (it was) his first game, he made some plays, did some things, so all guys have to step up. Obviously Dionte is a big part of our offense. So it's not just gonna be one guy."

Austin led the Steelers with six receptions, but managed just 37 yards on those catches, while Robinson, a former 1,000-yard receiver with both the Jaguars and Bears, had a team-high 64 yards on five receptions in his first game with the Steelers.

Since selecting Johnson with the second pick of the third round in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Steelers are 35-21-1 in games he's started. When he does not, they are 3-7. But Johnson has missed just two games completely in his career and the Steelers are 1-1 in those contests.

And Johnson has been the Steelers' best receiver working against man-to-man coverage.

Last week against San Francisco, Johnson was the NFL's highest-rated player according to Pro Football Focus against man-to-man defense, posting a 92.2, edging the 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk, who posted a 92.0 and Miami's Tyreek Hill (91.1).

San Francisco only played man-to-to on five occasions, per Pro Football Focus, but Johnson was targeted on three of those occasions, catching two passes for 41 yards. Pickett missed an open Johnson on a slant on the other target.

The Browns blitzed Burrow nearly 40 percent of the time last week and pressed Cincinnati's talented wideouts at the line of scrimmage, meaning the Steelers' wide receivers could be forced to win at the line if Cleveland employs a similar strategy this week under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

"Based off what they did against Cinci, we can anticipate they'll probably do some of the same things," said Austin. "I welcome whatever coverage is going to be brought. We'll definitely be prepared to get a little bit more press man."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The key for the Steelers could be producing more first downs early in the game to allow them to run their offense.

That was something that didn't happen against San Francisco as the Steelers failed to produce a first down on their first five possessions of the game while falling behind 20-0. It wasn't until the Steelers got the ball back at their own 5 with 1:35 remaining in the first half and no timeouts remaining that they finally started to move the ball, eventually scoring a touchdown.

"The start of the game was not what we wanted," said Canada. "Five three-and-outs is not what we expected. … Once that occurred, probably the only high point of the game for us was the two-minute drive. 

"We were always playing from behind, did not get into our routine, our plan. So, disappointing. You can't score seven points, can't do all those things. No secret about that. But I'm also saying it's one game, and we've got to move on."

That will happen Monday against the Browns when the Steelers try to erase the memories of that bad start.

"We didn't perform well in our first game, and it's very disappointing, but everything we've done through the spring through the summer, I don't have any doubts or concerns it's going to be better," Canada said. "How much better? I'm not making any kind of big, bold predictions but I know that we didn't play like we played or practiced. I don't have the answer why. We're certainly working on it and evaluating like you always do, win or lose. But you can't run from it. We're going to have to be better and we will be."