2020 South Side Questions: Does Diontae Johnson’s Re-Emergence Do Away With ‘Hot Hand’ Passing Attack Strategy?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now into the regular season, following the most unique offseason in the NFL since at least World War II. While it didn’t involve a player lockout, teams still did not have physical access to their players, though they were at least able to meet with them virtually.

Even training camp looked much different from the norm, and a big part of that was the fact that there will be no games along the way to prepare for. Their first football game of the year was to be the opener against the New York Giants.

As the season progresses, however, there will be a number of questions that arise on a daily basis, and we will do our best to try to raise attention to them as they come along, in an effort to both point them out and to create discussion

Questions like, how will the players who are in new positions this year going to perform? Will the rookies be able to contribute significantly? How will Ben Roethlisberger look—and the other quarterbacks as well? Now, we even have questions about whether or not players will be in quarantine.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Is the ‘hot hand’ approach to the passing game going to retreat now that Ben Roethlisberger has Diontae Johnson, his favorite target, back?

Diontae Johnson has played three full (or nearly full) games with Ben Roethlisberger as a full-time starting player. In their first game together, he was targeted 10 times. In his second game, 13 times. Yesterday, their third nearly-full game together, he was targeted 15 times. Each of these were career-highs when they occurred.

And unsurprisingly, his nine receptions were also a career high, marking his first career two-receiving-touchdown game. But over the course of the season, so far, it had been a different player getting the most attention or making the most plays.

Yet it’s been Johnson making the most plays in two of the three games for which he has been healthy now. And now that he is back on the field, chances are he is going to be getting a lot of love from Roethlisberger in the form of targets in the passing game.

So are we going to lose that ‘hot hand’ approach that Mike Tomlin has talked about, about the strength of the pack being the pack? Or is that really more of a fallback position when your receiving corps isn’t at full strength? Because Johnson and Diontae Johnson combined for 29 targets yesterday.

Johnson has the most route-running talent on the team, and his ability to generate separation is superior to all. Chase Claypool logged a lot of snaps, but hardly contributed. James Washington was a virtual afterthought after his best game of the year.

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