If you were watching the broadcast of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ game against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday and scanned the reaction shots after Diontae Johnson scored early in the game on an 85-yard punt return, you might have noticed that there was hardly anyone happier about it than quarterback Devlin Hodges.
And not just because it helped give him a 10-0 lead to work with (following a prior opening-drive field goal) without even having to take the field. As he explained while discussing his fellow rookie to reporters yesterday, whatever Johnson does on special teams, the opposing defense sees as well.
“Let me tell you, it helps when he scores and the offense isn’t even on the field”, he said. “That punt return, that was a huge splash play as we like to call them. I know the offense isn’t on the field, but that gives the defense the heads up that this guy can score, this guy can do some things with the ball in his hands. Just a lot of confidence. It was a big game for him”.
Especially in the case of a player like Johnson, there is really a lot of truth to this, and the evidence is all over the rookie’s tape. The same qualities that he brandished on his punt return are the traits that have allowed him to turn a number of third-down passes short of the chains into first downs. It’s the same thing that allowed him to turn a screen pass three yards behind the line of scrimmage to a 14-yard gain by completely reversing field after slipping from the grasp of Patrick Peterson.
Ya think that might help? I think so.
There’s a reason the Steelers drafted Johnson where they did, even though many outside commentators seemed to be confused by the timing, believing (falsely) that he would have been available later. He has some fantastic traits to his game, at the snap, in his route, at the top of his route, and with the ball in his hands.
The latter in particular is what he has the opportunity to display in his work on punt returns, of course, and he showed just what kind of weapon he could be. But he wasn’t surprised by the opportunity coming off the foot of Arizona Cardinals punter Andy Lee.
“We were talking about how the punter likes to outkick his coverage”, he said after the game. “He was doing it the whole time I was watching film, so he gave me an opportunity to have a lot of space to actually have room to maneuver. I took advantage of it and got in the end zone”.
Of course, the Steelers also later fell victim to a fake punt as well, even though they generally read it properly, so scouting doesn’t do all the work for you, though it sure helps quite a bit.