June 22, 2024

Diontae Johnson‘s on-field frustration Sunday in Cleveland continued after the game in the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ locker room, where he got into a heated argument with teammate Minkah Fitzpatrick before Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt broke up the altercation and delivered a message that the team needed to stick together, league sources told ESPN on Saturday.

Order eventually was restored in the locker room, but the argument between two of the team’s star players left a mark going forward on the Steelers, who fired offensive coordinator Matt Canada two days later.

Pittsburgh’s on- and off-field performance in the 13-10 loss was a clear tipping point, leading the Steelers to make their first in-season coaching change since 1941. After another inept offensive performance and the outburst from Johnson, it became apparent that the Steelers needed to make a move.

Johnson, who had just two catches against the Browns, was visibly upset on the sideline during the game, engaging in an animated conversation with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

But the heated words didn’t stop there.

One source told ESPN that Johnson, the Steelers’ second-leading receiver, continued “chirping” at the coaches all the way into the locker room, where Fitzpatrick — a three-time first-team All-Pro — began arguing with Johnson. The words between Johnson and Fitzpatrick became “heated,” according to another source, before Heyward and Watt intervened and prevented the situation from getting worse.

Heyward and Watt calmed everyone down before they and Tomlin addressed the situation. Sources around the team believe the Steelers have been able to move on, and the incident has not carried over into the team’s preparation for Sunday’s game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

But the argument is an example of the effect that the Steelers’ struggling offense has had on the entire team, as tempers flared and emotions took over, even getting the better of some of Pittsburgh’s top players.

It helped lead to Tomlin and the Steelers firing Canada on Tuesday. The last time the Steelers had fired a head coach or coordinator midseason was when half-owner Bert Bell dismissed himself as the head coach in 1941 after an 0-2 start before first hiring Aldo Donelli, who went 0-5, and then Walt Kiesling, who finished up 1-2-1.

For the rest of the season, the new offensive coordinator will be running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, while the primary game-day playcaller will be quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan.

“You hate to see it,” Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett told reporters earlier this week. “You don’t want to see one of your coaches lose their job. We all got to be better.”

Faulkner, who has been on staff in Pittsburgh since 2019, said Thursday that the Steelers believe they let down Canada.

“I couldn’t say enough good about Matt Canada,” Faulkner said. “It’s a little bit bittersweet in that way because when you sit back and you see all that goes on, and all that’s being said about him and the offense, we all — and I’m speaking for the offense when I say this to staff — we all felt that we’re all part of that. Nobody’s absolving themselves from anything that’s happened in that regard. We feel like we let him down.”

The Steelers’ offense struggled throughout Canada’s tenure as coordinator, never eclipsing 400 yards of offense in his 45-game career, including the playoffs. The 31 other NFL teams hit that benchmark at least four times each in that stretch.

Pittsburgh is 6-4 but has a negative point differential (-29) and has been outgained in every game. The Steelers rank 28th in points per game (16.6), 28th in offensive yards per game (280.1) and 30th in passing yards per game (170).

Tomlin said he selected Faulkner to lead the offense because of his “steady voice and demeanor” and “natural” communication in managing the running backs room.

Faulkner said there wouldn’t necessarily be any significant tactical shift in Pittsburgh’s offense but emphasized that he is “going to empower the guys around us” and “work real hard to be in lockstep” with Sullivan.

ESPN’s Brooke Pryor contributed to this report.

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