Even though they have been able to win without him, and actually their best game of the season was the one in which he didn’t even play, it’s still fair to say that Diontae Johnson was missed as a staple, featured player in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense.
And it was no surprise that Ben Roethlisberger looked his way early and often, seeing 15 targets—a career high—with nine catches (ditto) for 80 yards and two receiving touchdowns (ditto again). Not just because it suited the gameplan against a Tampa 2 defense the Titans were running, but because he has that kind of talent—and opponents know it.
Head coach Mike Tomlin talks about how defenses dictate who among their receivers will have the hot hand going into a game. The way Tennessee plays suited feeding Johnson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, something that the former says they knew would be the case, and how he would be played.
“I knew that from the jump because they know the speed I have and my capability of getting down and able to stretch the field and whatnot”, he said of their playing off-coverage on him. “So they were trying to keep everything in front of them, but we had plays to counter that and we executed them on each and every drive, just dumping them off here and there, so that’s what I noticed”.
Johnson was one of the best players in the NFL last season in creating separation in his routes. He is not high on the list right now through six games—and he has only played in about half of them—right now, but the sample sizes are still small, and I’m sure by the end of the season, if he stays healthy, he will be back up toward the top again.
Of course, sometimes elusiveness means working in short spaces and against tighter coverage, which was the case on Sunday against the Titans. He made a lot of physical catches in traffic because he was able to get just that little bit of daylight, particularly on possession downs, to get in position to make the catch, even if he wasn’t three yards away from his man.
Separation will probably be more important this week against the Baltimore Ravens if they are to have success. The Ravens have given up 15 explosive plays on the season so far, almost all of them on deep targets, and opponents are averaging 6.7 yards per attempt against them overall.
Whatever the strategy is, Johnson will be a big part of it, as we have seen in every game for which he has been healthy so far this season. He has seen an average of about 13 targets in the three games for which he was on the field for the majority of the game.