Last week, Diontae Johnson caught one pass on five targets for 14 yards, including at least one pass that he outright dropped. Yesterday, he caught six of eight passes for 60 yards and a touchdown, plus a 16-yard end-around carry and an 85-yard punt return touchdown among 87 total return yards, putting up 163 all-purpose yards in the Pittsburgh Steelers win over the Arizona Cardinals.
How to account for this? “He’s a rookie”, head coach Mike Tomlin offered following the win during his post-game press conference. The Toledo product was taken by the Steelers in the third round with the 66th-overall pick, one of two selections they received from the Oakland Raiders for Antonio Brown.
“Days like today are days we like; last week, we don’t”, the head coach went on. “We’ll see what next week holds. It’s important, not only him, but all of those guys, to be ascending guys here in the month of December, and we’ve been thoughtful about that in terms of their exposure”.
That’s not entirely accurate. His two highest snap counts of the season by percentage came before the bye week, including in Week Five against the Baltimore Ravens when he played 91 percent of the snaps, though that was the game in which James Washington was injured.
“In September, we didn’t play him a lot of snaps”, Tomlin argued. “We managed the growth of guys like Diontae and Benny Snell and Devin Bush because we want them to be guys on the rise down the stretch and not guys that are dying on the vine. All of those guys have an opportunity to be on the rise, and maybe today was an illustration of that in his case, but we’ll see”.
For the most part, Johnson has been averaging about two thirds of the snaps per game, or within that ballpark. That includes even the past two games heading into Sunday’s game, in spite of the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster had been out.
The rookie now has 42 catches on the season, the most on the team, for 483-yard and a team-leading four touchdown receptions. Washington is still the leading receiver in terms of yards, now over 600 receiving yards for the season, catching four passes for 33 yards against the Cardinals.
Johnson had a number of highlight-reel plays during the game, including on special teams and as a runner. He has proven to be elusive in the open field when given the opportunity, and that has been a very valuable weapon for this offense.
The Steelers will need to see him continue to put that to good use over the course of the next three-plus games, into the postseason, and for that, he must remain, as Tomlin said, a player on the rise. Yesterday’s game was a good start in working his way back up.