Diontae Johnson is a name that went through many ups and downs during last year’s campaign. While there is no denying his pure athleticism, talent and route running abilities, Johnson’s biggest downfall in 2020 was his inconsistency. Johnson’s inability to catch the football on a consistent basis was the one thing that derailed him last season and the team was not shy about making that point clear. Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach, Mike Tomlin was very critical of his receivers this past season and didn’t hold back when asked if he had a plan to address the issue at hand. He responded with, “They can catch the ball or they can get replaced by those that will catch it. I expect guys to make routine plays, routinely.” A bold statement to make, but one made with a purpose. A statement Johnson clearly received.
It was clear that QB Ben Roethlisberger had built a sense of trust with Johnson which was heard about during the early days of training camp. Coming out of the gate, through the first five regular season games, Johnson was targeted a total of 41 times, which equals out to about eight attempts per game. This is in comparison to Chase Claypool’s 25 targets and JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 42. Smith-Schuster was looked at as the #1 WR going into this season by many outside of the organization after a monster 2018 campaign with our future Hall of Fame QB back behind center. With Roethlisberger back from injury, the fact that Johnson was getting just about the same amount of targets as the 3rd year WR through that many games, could be a subtle hint that Johnson was going to be a huge part of this team’s offense, for not just this season, but years to come.
The rest of the season was indicative of that statement. Overall, at season’s end, Johnson ended up with 88 receptions on 144 targets, totaling 923 yards and 7 touchdowns. The production aspect was there, that was never the issue at hand. What was left in question was what the season COULD HAVE been for Johnson, without those NFL leading 10 drops through 16 games. It’s probably safe to say that without those miscues, he would have easily been a 1,000-yard receiver in 2020, missing the mark by just 77 yards. Dropped passes were still something that Johnson pretty much struggled with all year, but it wasn’t something that he was going to let get the better of him.
You have to give Johnson some credit. The inconsistency was something that clearly got to him in a mental way. You could see his frustrations on the field at times, cameras were pointing in Johnson’s direction as he stared at his hands in disbelief that he didn’t come down with the grab. Johnson could have gotten down in the dumps and let his inconsistencies get the best of him, in ways that could have affected his career. He could have just simply relied on his talent alone, and settled. Instead, Johnson made a statement by not even saying a word. He let his actions speak louder than his words and would be seen catching passes hours before game time, getting as many extra reps as possible. You can tell that he wanted to get better, and get better he did. He finished the season on a high note, putting up back-to-back 100-yard games against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars, and had a game-winning diving touchdown grab late in the game to seal a crucial win vs the Indianapolis Colts towards the end of the year. Through the last 10 games of the season, he was targeted more than 10 times in 8 contests, which one can assume means that Roethlisberger didn’t lose faith in his guy, and despite all of the struggles that Johnson went through, the ball was still coming his way.
Johnson’s future, in my opinion, is bright in the ‘Burgh. He looks to go into the season as the team’s #1 target after being thrown at 144 times last season, good for first on the team. He built a connection with Roethlisberger that now has a year under its belt. If Johnson can put in the work and do his best to limit the dropped passes during the season, while pairing that with his superior route running ability and natural speed, watch out. The sky’s the limit for a talent like his and it’s time to see where this connection can lead too.
Do you have faith in Diontae Johnson heading into 2021? Let me hear it in the comment section below!