Diontae Johnson’s Ball Security As Punt Returner In Question Again After Muff

Diontae Johnson had a very encouraging rookie season last year as a wide receiver, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. He did this while getting minimal work in while Ben Roethlisberger was still at quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the first two games of the season—or the first six quarters, anyway.

Where he was really recognized, however, was as a punt returner, despite only assuming that role for about half of the season after Ryan Switzer was injured. He ultimately was able to return 20 punts on the season and did so for 248 total yards, including one touchdown for 85 yards. That was the longest punt return of the season in the NFL, and his 12.4 yards per punt return also led the league.

While he showed his ability to be an impactful player on special teams as a returner, however, it wasn’t without incident, and in fact his early work in that area was highly questionable, as he had issues with ball security. He muffed some, had difficulty fielding others, and ultimately was charged with five total fumbles on the season between offense and defense.

Those ball security issues were quick to rear their ugly heads against the New York Giants tonight. After the defense eventually forced New York to punt on the end of their opening drive, Johnson attempted to field the ball inside the 10-yard line. He got too far under it, and it ricocheted off of his shoulder and bounced behind him.

There was an elongated scrum for the ball that pursued inside of the five-yard line, during which it appeared as though possession exchanged hands multiple times, but the Giants ultimately came up with it. The defense again stepped up and forced a field goal, with T.J. Watt nearly forcing a fumble on second down, but that was three points off of turnovers.

Johnson’s second attempt to field a punt was little better. Shifting to his left, he looked to secure a fair catch, and did so, but was not sure-footed and fell to the ground as it did so. We saw him do this, or something similar, multiple times last year.

How much can this be attributed to the fact that the offseason was limited? With no preseason games, there was not a great deal of opportunity to actually work on special teams and returns, but the Steelers did try to do some live work in this area.

Whatever the reason, whatever the cause, it’s obvious that Johnson has to be cleaner in this area if he wants to keep his job as the punt returner. If he keeps putting the ball on the ground, it doesn’t matter how explosive he is. Lost possessions are far more significant than the occasional big return, so the second-year man should be on notice. Ray-Ray McCloud is the backup punt returner, with James Pierre behind him.

That was after allowing the Giants three early points after Diontae Johnson muffed a punt at the end of their opening drive. That gave them the ball inside the five-yard line, but the defense stood up and kept them out of the end zone.

He had a couple more opportunities throughout the game to return kicks, and gradually did better, ultimately recording 13 return yards on three punts, with the one wobbly fair catch. And he added six catches for 57 yards on offense. But that muff was big, and he also lacked hands on a couple of incomplete passes his way.

Johnson’s second season is not off to the smoothest start that it could have been. It could be a lot worse, granted, but it’s clear that he is not yet in mid-season form, and that there are areas of his game that are in need of growing.

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