This holiday season, Pittsburgh Steelers #1 wide receiver, Diontae Johnson, is hoping that he gets some increased opportunities. He has voiced his frustration more than once this season over his lack of targets, including after the Week 11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“Any football player would be frustrated,” Johnson said of those circumstances. “But I just have to keep playing.”
During his press conference Tuesday, Head Coach Mike Tomlin was asked about Johnson’s comments. Tomlin said, “Diontae is a known commodity in this group.” Tomlin further indicated that other guys need to step up on offense causing defenses to adjust and thus free Johnson to be available more often.
This closely mirrors comments made by quarterback Kenny Pickett after the Cincy game:
“With the coverage, they were playing, I felt like they weren’t letting Diontae get singled up. That’s frustrating when he’s that good of a player, that talented, and they try and take him out of the game plan. There are some things [that can be done], maybe move him around more and get him in different spots to try and get him the ball, you know? But when they’re playing a two-high shell and they got a safety over the top, it’s tough.”
Johnson, who signed a large contract in the off-season, has strength in the yardage he picks up after a catch. He is best when thrown a short pass that allows him to use his speed and agility to slip past defenders. However, the Steelers aren’t using him in that way this season and it shows in his numbers. He was averaging about 4.3 YAC, but that number has slipped drastically to 1.8 YAC.
Is the Problem Johnson or Pickett?
While it may be true that the defenses are giving Johnson a lot of attention, it does not fully explain the lack of productivity he has had. The blame for Johnson’s production drop has been placed on almost everyone in black and gold including Offensive Coordinator, Matt Canada, Pickett, and Johnson himself. As is typically the case in these situations, there is enough blame to go around.
Johnson has not played perfect ball – he has had some drops and he has developed a habit of not just running north/south and picking up what he can. Instead, he has run backwards sometimes, thus losing yardage and killing drives. During the Week 10 game against the New Orleans Saints, Johnson had a backwards run that ended up being disastrous. He swore after that game that he was done, but we saw it happen again in Week 11. In his defense, he has shown, like with the drops, that he is willing to put in the hard work to improve.
Another factor is that Pickett just isn’t targeting Johnson enough. Johnson’s production has dropped significantly since Mitch Trubisky was benched Week 4 against the New York Jets. During the first three games of the season, while Trubisky was under center, Johnson had PFF grades of 69.2 against Cincy, 84.4 against New England, and 70.1 against Cleveland. In the 7 games since then, he has had 5 with scores in the 50’s and two games in the 60’s. One of those games in the 60’s was in Tampa Bay where Pickett was out with a concussion and Trubisky came in.
In 10 games, and after trading Chase Claypool, Johnson is not looking like the WR1 that we expected. He has 51 receptions for 456 yards and 0 touchdowns. He is the only player with at least 75 targets who hasn’t scored a single touchdown. Last season he had 8. The Steelers have invested the money in him and now must invest the time in finding ways to move him around the field. There are plenty of other assets on the offense that can step outside so he can be in the slot more. Make the necessary adjustments to get the ball in his hands and let him do what he does best.
What do you think is hampering Johnson most this season? Click to comment below!