PITTSBURGH — There is a growing concern, some might want to call it fear, the Steelers might have another Antonio Brown on their hands. However, in this instance, it's not just one receiver who is guilty of such shameful, sometimes intolerable behavior. It's two.
And they can't simply be dismissed as being what every ego-indulged, self-admiring receiver is accused of being — a diva.
To some degree, every wide receiver who plays in the NFL is a diva. They want the ball, no matter how many targets and receptions they might get, because they believe they are the playmakers, the game-breakers. There is nothing wrong with that. But it's the ones who are more vocal and publicly demonstrative about it that get labeled with the scarlet "D." They become known as coach killers.
Odell Beckham Jr, Terrell Owens, Dez Bryant immediately come to mind, though it is a very large fraternity from which to choose.
Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are running neck-and-neck with the Steelers, not to see who will have the most receptions in 2023, but rather who will cause the most disruptions with their behavior.
Their antics on the field have been called into question as much as their behavior off the field. Johnson's failure to react to a fumble by Jaylen Warren in Cincinnati, one week after he got into a heated exchange with injured safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in the locker room, are just the most recent displays of solipsistic behavior by the team's fifth-year wide receiver.
Lest anyone forget, it was Johnson who precipitated a halftime locker-room argument with quarterback Mitch Trubisky in a Week 4 game against the New York Jets last season, an incident that led to the dawn of the Kenny Pickett era when Trubisky was benched to start the second half.
For his most recent dalliance, Johnson was sentenced to appear before a tribunal of his teammates to apologize, later publicly vowing to never let it happen again — which, of course, remains to be seen.
Earlier this week, former Steelers running back Merril Hoge, who breaks down film the way a mechanic takes apart a car, was on the DVE Morning Show ripping into Pickens for continually running lazy routes. Hoge even pointed to a specific play against the Bengals in which Pickett misfired on a crossing route to Pickens — not because Pickett was wide with the throw, he said, but because the second-year receiver was not going full-speed and wasn't where he was supposed to be.
Hoge compared Pickens' approach to route running to Derek Hill, a former third-round choice by the Steelers in 1989 who had many of the same physical gifts. Hoge said coach Chuck Noll grew weary of Hill's lack of effort and cut him after two seasons, even though Hill had 53 catches for 846 yards and a touchdown in two seasons.
Pickens' lack of maturity and brooding has been on display several times this season, none more embarrassingly so when he failed to celebrate Johnson's first touchdown catch in 22 games by sulking back to the bench.
But let's be clear about one thing: Neither Johnson nor Pickens belong in Antonio Brown's class. At least, not yet.
Brown took selfishness and narcissism to a whole new level that went beyond screaming for the ball (even the mild-manner Heath Miller once told him to "shut the bleep up" in the huddle), knocking over Gatorade cups and slapping away the hand of offensive coordinator Todd Haley on the sidelines.
He deliberately ran wrong routes, made a habit of skipping meetings, stormed out of practice after cursing and throwing the ball at Ben Roethlisberger and refused to return phone calls from Mike Tomlin and team president/owner Art Rooney II. His act of insubordination finally got him traded to the Oakland Raiders.
There seems to be a growing worry that Johnson and Pickens are headed down the same path. But they have a long way to go to sink to that level.
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