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Steelers Film Room: The Mind-Boggling Good, Bad and Ugly of the Diontae Johnson Experience

In some aspects the Pittsburgh Steelers have the best receiver in football. In others, they have a truly frustrating player to watch.

Diontae Johnson is an enigma and one of the hardest players in the league to truly figure out. There are flashes of mesmerizing route-running displays followed by unexplainable unforced errors due to lapses in concentration. Now in his fourth year in the league, it's becoming increasingly clear that these inconsistencies could potentially be here to stay. Week 13's performance was a perfect example of the quandary that Johnson puts the Pittsburgh Steelers, and their fan base, in on a weekly basis. 

The Good

While he hasn't been used a ton as a vertical receiver this season, Johnson is capable of stretching the field. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Johnson drew A.J. Terrell in man coverage on the backside of a 4x1 formation. Johnson changes the tempo and gives a hesitation move which leads Terrell to stop his feet before he explodes vertically, stacking the cornerback down the sideline with ease. 

His route-running prowess helps him leave a really talented corner and a superb athlete in the dust. Unfortunately, the throw was late and inside, forcing Johnson to effectively turn into a defender on the play, batting the football away to prevent an interception from the post safety roaming his way. Everything about the process was spectacular, but the result was an incompletion due to no fault of his own.

And that wasn't the only time that Johnson would beat Terrell down the field. With the Steelers marching into the red zone, Matt Canada would dial up a play action, go ball concept to the end zone. While not as clean of a win overall, Johnson does a nice job playing through contact while stacking Terrell and giving his quarterback a window to lay the ball in over his shoulder. But the two failed to hook up again, leaving Johnson without a receiving touchdown twelve games into the season. Pickett underthrows this ball, allowing the cornerback to recover and forcing Johnson to work back through contact while trying to make a contested catch grab. This should have been a win for the receiver that ultimately goes down as an incompletion in the box score. 

Pittsburgh hasn't really been able to unlock the intermediate areas of the field, but they've been most effective when targeting Johnson on deep comebacks near the sideline. 

The Toledo product leads the NFL in catches on comebacks (10), more than double that of any other receiver so far this season. 

Johnson saw off coverage from Darren Hall on this rep, with Kenny Pickett running a play action bootleg to the right side of the field. Johnson eats up the cushion, and works the cornerback's blind spot with his stem before snapping his route off on the comeback. 

Notice that Johnson creates roughly four yards of separation thanks to his unique ability to get in and out his breaks with so few steps and zero wasted motion. Pickett hits him with an accurate throw, and this would end up being one of their more explosive plays of the day. 

The Bad

On third and long, the Falcons elected to bring pressure and play man coverage behind it. Pittsburgh is running a variation of the mesh concept, creating an underneath rub between the two receivers crossing the field. Terrell is responsible for Johnson in the slot but ends up stumbling and losing his footing. With pressure ensuing, Pickett quickly identifies the open target, hitting Johnson in stride making certain that he doesn't lose momentum. 

Johnson just drops an easy pass with no one near him, whether it be to lack of focus or trying to run before securing the catch, the result is still equally disappointing. 

When teams apply pressure on money downs, it forces quarterbacks to throw short of the sticks, but this play almost assuredly picks up the first down, and then some had he hauled it in.

Later in the fourth quarter, shortly after the Falcons cut it a one-score game, Johnson nearly made a catastrophic mistake. 

On third and long, Johnson aligned in a condensed split before working a drag route underneath. Terrell plays this rep perfectly as he's in phase to prevent the first down. As Pickett rolls right, that signals the start of a scramble drill with Johnson working back toward the quarterback to make himself available. 

Pickett delivers an accurate throw on the run, hitting the receiver in his hands, but as he turns upfield, he has the ball knocked away from him. This was originally ruled a fumble, and it was pretty surprising to see this overturned as it seemed like Johnson had control for long enough to own possession of the ball. 

The completion wasn't going to get the first down but putting the ball on the turf there in a spot where the Falcons would have had a very short field to take the lead isn't the type of play you want from your number one receiver in a key spot.

The Ugly

With the Steelers driving once again in the red zone, Johnson committed a false start penalty on first down, costing the offense five yards. An inexplicable error that is puzzling on many levels especially considering that this was likely a run play away from his side nonetheless. 

At all levels of football growing up, you are taught to watch the ball as a receiver, and this isn't a penalty you see too often called on receivers. In 2021, Johnson led all wide receivers league-wide with ten penalties, seven of those were false starts. There's been a little more attention to detail this season, but he's committed two false starts penalties in the past three weeks. 

Mental errors like this drive coaches insane.

For years, I've wondered how such a uniquely talented player could also be so maddeningly frustrating. But the answer to that question just might be an overall lack of consistency. According to Pro Football Focus, his on-target drop rate now sits at 7.6%, ranking 40th out of 56 qualifying receivers with at least 50 targets on the season. While that's a slight increase over his numbers from 2021, the issue isn't necessarily always about the drops themselves, it's about when they come. 

Johnson's drops, and mistakes in general, such as penalties, often come in bunches, and you saw that come to fruition once again versus Atlanta.

It's a shame that those lowlights, more often than not, diminish the other amazing aspects of his game. You can count on one hand the number of route runners league-wide that can do what this guy can do in one on one situations. ESPN has a new statistic which is called an "open score," used to illustrate how often a receiver gets open. Guess who is number one on that list so far this season? You guessed it, it's Diontae Johnson. 

Press man, off man, zone coverage, it doesn't really matter - even the elite level cover guys in the league struggle to hang with #18 when left on an island. 

Johnson's numbers are down on the season, as he's currently barely outpacing his yardage output for his rookie season back in 2019. He also has the most targets league-wide without a touchdown grab. Some of that is due to poor quarterback play, some unfortunate luck at times, and a portion of that also lies at his feet as well. 

Two weeks ago, Pickett threw him a back shoulder fade route in the back left corner of the end zone and Johnson just let it slide through his hands. If you watch the film on a weekly basis, Johnson's been better than his numbers would indicate, but when those chances come his way, he needs to capitalize. 

For a multitude of reasons, he's not making those explosive plays or scoring touchdowns at the rate that he was last season, one which led to the Steelers giving him a two-year, $36.7M deal running through 2024. 

Johnson's always been this inconsistent player, and that didn't prevent Pittsburgh from locking up long-term. It's just that for the first time in his career, the highs haven't outweighed the lows. There is always additional pressure from the outside when a player gets a big-money contract, and so far, Johnson hasn't quite lived up to the billing.

But the Steelers need Johnson now more than ever. It's easy to see that he's still a good player who carries value, especially in this offense where he's the only true consistent separator. There aren't many guys in the league that can do the things that he can do, but it comes with a price of inconsistency. 

Pittsburgh's buckled in on this roller coaster until at least 2024 with the hopes that Johnson can one day become that dominant number-one receiver that they envisioned when they drafted him way back in 2019. 

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