Last week, the Denver Broncos needed to focus on a physical wide receiver with great long speed in hopes of shutting down the Tennessee Titans’ attack. A.J. Brown was the headliner heading into Week 1, but another physical, fast wideout in Corey Davis stole the show.
This week, with a trip to take on the 1-0 Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, Denver will have to worry about another wide receiver in Week 2. However, unlike Brown and Davis, Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson is a jitterbug that excels at route running, creating a ton of separation (3.0 yards average separation in Week 1) in his routes to work himself open.
Last season, with Ben Roethlisberger out for all but a game and a half, Johnson excelled as a rookie catching passes from Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges.
Once JuJu Smith-Schuster went down with an injury last season, all the attention turned to Johnson out wide. He thrived going up against each team’s top cornerback week to week.
Why did he excel? His route running and impeccable footwork.
However, Smith-Schuster and Roethlisberger are both back healthy and thriving early in the year, but don’t sleep on Johnson heading into this week one matchup.
The key with Johnson is creating separation. He’s certainly not the biggest and definitely not the fastest wide receiver out there. What he is though is the Steelers’ best route runner; a quick-twitch wideout who explodes into and out of his breaks, creating ample separation for easy uncontested throws from quarterbacks.
Let’s go back to 2019 first.
Late in the season, Johnson really upped his game when it came to route running and creating separation.
The Sunday Night Football showdown with the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field had Johnson squaring off against arguably the top cornerback in football in Tre’Davious White.
Johnson gave him fits throughout the night, including this route here.
It doesn’t look like much at first, but watch Johnson work up the field quickly, tangling White’s feet up as he tried to cross over to get vertical with him.
Earlier in the season, Johnson had Los Angeles Rams cornerback Troy Hill twisting in the wind in a late afternoon matchup at Heinz Field.
He’s so quick in and out of his breaks and can get his head around in a hurry, especially when pushed up the boundary, making him a dangerous possession receiver.
Something about the sideline though… Johnson thrives there.
Last year on the road in Arizona, Johnson again showed off his quick transitions into and out of breaks, creating just enough room against fellow rookie Byron Murphy to catch this touchdown from Hodges in the front of the end zone.
Johnson really started feeling himself as a route runner down the stretch last season, which increased his confidence not only in himself, but from his quarterbacks as well, becoming the go-to target for a scrappy Steelers team.
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While Johnson is known as the quick-twitch wideout for the Steelers, one thing I noticed down the stretch with Johnson was that cornerbacks were hesitant to commit one way or another in his routes due to his separation abilities. Therefore, he caught quite a few corners on their heels down the stretch, leading to some big plays over the top.
On the road in Week 16 against the New York Jets, Johnson’s threat to break off his route at any moment had this Jets corner wary, allowing Johnson to beat him over the top for the 29-yard touchdown.
After the Catch
Quietly, Johnson is very dangerous after the catch.
As a punter returner and wide receiver, I charted Johnson racking up 26 forced missed tackles last season as a rookie, finishing second on the team.
On Monday night, Johnson picked upright where he left off, recording three forced missed tackles against the Giants, including this impressive one against Corey Ballentine right after making a great back-shoulder catch.
He’s so slippery in space due to his short-area explosion and footwork.
How to Stop Johnson
Denver is going to have to find a way to either get very physical with Johnson at the line, or provide whichever cornerback that covers him some underneath help to take away the short, quick throws.
This will be just the second game of Johnson’s career with Roethlisberger targeting him, so the pair is still trying to develop some chemistry.
We’ve seen some physical corners take Johnson away at times, so that’s what Vic Fangio and the Broncos will need to do on Sunday. It’s really a 'pick your poison' proposition with the Steelers’ wide receivers corps, considering Johnson is an emerging standout, Smith-Schuster is a former Pro Bowler, James Washington is a vertical threat, and Chase Claypool is a physical specimen.