For just the second time all season, Diontae Johnson caught fewer than half of the targets that he saw during Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns. In fact, in that aspect, it was his worst performance of the season, catching just one of five targets for 14 yards, though it was a big third-down conversion late in the game.
The rookie third-round draft pick has been consistently asked to play a big role from the word go. He saw five targets in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season opener, catching three passes for 25 yards. He has at least one reception in every single game, and at least two in nine of the 12.
It’s been a bit since his last ‘big’ game, however. Four weeks ago, he caught four passes for 64 yards from Mason Rudolph in the win against the Los Angeles Rams. In the three games since, he has totaled just six receptions for 60 yards without a score.
Said head coach Mike Tomlin about the rookie’s showing on Sunday, “I don’t know that it’s a tough part of the season. I just think it’s the season itself. When you’re a young guy, each and every week you’re presented with challenges, and particularly as you get on this side of Thanksgiving, it’s uncharted territory for a guy from Toledo”.
With the 66th-overall pick, the Steelers selected Johnson higher than many expected him to go, yet there were those who were very high on the selection, particularly with the fit in Pittsburgh. By and large, he has certainly had a productive rookie year, even if his contributions have trailed off in recent weeks.
Tomlin spoke to that reality, saying that he’s “done a good job”, and noting that “we’ve been thoughtful about the management of him over the course of the journey. He’ll have gas in the tank for December, and we’ll utilize it”.
It may be worth noting that Johnson is also adjusting to becoming the Steelers’ full-time punt returner since Ryan Switzer was placed on the Reserve/Injured List. He would take a couple of snaps back there here and there prior to that, but now he is their starting punt returner.
I don’t know that that rises to the level of significance such that it provides an excuse or explanation for why his number might be down, but the point is that the Steelers are asking a lot from the rookie. Overall, it’s hard to be disappointed with what they’ve gotten.
On the season, he has 36 receptions on 61 targets for 423 yards and three touchdowns. He also has 78 yards on 11 punt returns, clearly an area in which he is looking to improve. And it goes without saying that the instability at the quarterback position has impaired the productivity of all skill positions in the passing game.