First call: Steelers QB Kenny Pickett promises ‘bounce back year’ for Diontae Johnson; Najee Harris rips RB salary

Tuesday’s “First Call” features Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris tearing up the NFL’s salary structure for players at his position. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett supports the use of play-action and promises bigger things from Diontae Johnson.

Plus, rookie tight end Darnell Washington is tied up in a school fees scandal that doesn’t even involve his alma mater.

And Marian Hossa will say goodbye to hockey in style.

Shots were fired

Steelers 2021 first-round pick Najee Harris and sophomore running back Derrick Henry are blasting the NFL for how it squeezes money for those who play the position.

In the wake of news that running backs Saquon Barkley (NYG), Josh Jacobs (LV) and Tony Pollard (DAL) all failed to reach long-term extensions with their teams, Henry and Harris took to Twitter to express their outrage that, what they consider to be wage inequality for those in the RB fraternity.

Barkley, Pollard and Jacobs will now play the 2023 season on their franchise tenders. They won’t exactly be poor, at $10.091 million for a year’s work.

However, they will have no security beyond this year and will likely enter what has been a depressed free agent market, even for good players at the position.

The three backs were the only players who received the franchise tag for not entering into a long-term contract. They had until Monday at 16 to get one.

TDs for DJ?

One of the more glaring Steelers stats from 2022 is that wide receiver Diontae Johnson failed to catch a touchdown pass all season.

Not good. At least not after signing a $36.71 million contract extension ($27 million guaranteed) in August 2022.

Appearing though on teammate Cameron Heywards”Not just football” podcast Monday, quarterback Kenny Pickett said that statistic will change in 2023.

“It’s kind of both ways. We’ve got to give him the ball and he’s got to do his thing, Pickett said. “We had some bad luck. He had a bit of an accident where he broke his foot twice. It’s just one of those things. I’m looking forward to him having a big year. He’s going to get a push back this year.”

It wasn’t just a lack of touchdowns for Johnson. While he caught 86 balls for 882 yards, his 10.3 yards per carry was. 86th in the NFL. His 235 yards after the catch was good for only 46.

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Pickett on play-action

Also during the podcastPickett supported the idea of ​​incorporating more play-action into the Steelers offense this season.

“I love it. There’s a give-and-take to it,” Pickett said. “If you have a really good game, you can trust the fake to do what it needs to do to set up everything else . But if the run game isn’t too good and those guys don’t step up, that’s where I can see some problems. After the spring and what we did, I’m excited to get to camp.”

That speaks to a concept we discussed during spring practices with the Steelers — the importance of getting big on first downs to keep defenses guessing in second- and third-down situations. This is where play-action will be most effective.

As we pointed out at the time, the idea of ​​the Steelers “opening up the offense” isn’t so much centered around them slinging the ball all over the field and increasing Pickett’s pass attempts per game. It’s more about taking calculated shots in advantageous down-and-distance situations, perhaps often off play-action passes.

But Pickett himself has to pay for those opportunities. As pointed out at Steelers Depot, the rookie QB completed 65% of his play-action passes (43 of 66), but for just 343 yards. That’s an average of 5.19 yards per carry. attempts, no touchdowns and one interception.

Washington’s Benjamins

Steelers rookie tight end Darnell Washington’s name is being linked to the fallout from a report on the University of Tennessee football team.

On Friday, Knox News published a piece names Washington as an anonymous athlete in an NCAA report detailing improper recruiting by the team’s former coaching staff under Jeremy Pruitt.

The Knox News post cites Washington as a player who received $750 in cash and several other impermissible benefits totaling $1,713 from former Volunteers assistant Brian Niedermeyer in 2019. Niedermeyer had been honored as the National Recruiter of the Year by and ESPN that season.

He and Pruitt were fired in 2021 after an internal investigation. Washington didn’t even end up going to Tennessee. He went to SEC rival Georgia.

Washington was not quoted in the story.

Marian’s memories

Former Penguin Marian Hossa hosts a “goodbye game” as a way to remember his Hall of Fame career. It will be August 18 in Trencin, Slovakia.

Former Penguins Miroslav Satan and Michael Rozsival will join a star-studded roster of NHL players on the ice.

Hossa’s career was cut short due to a chronic allergic skin reaction to his equipment. He last played in the NHL in 2017.

The winger played 1,309 NHL games, scored 525 goals and collected 609 assists and 1,134 points. After losing in the Stanley Cup Finals with the Pens in 2008, Hossa famously picked the team that beat Pittsburgh, the Detroit Red Wings, in free agency.

The next year, the Pens beat the Red Wings in the ’09 Finals. Hossa then won three Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, ’13 and ’15. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020. The Blackhawks retired his No. 81 in November.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reset. All e-mails are subject to publication unless otherwise stated.

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