The Pittsburgh Steelers are losers of their last two games and included in those defeats were multiple dropped passes. Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson not only had the most drops in the last two games, he also firmly leads the NFL in that dubious statistical category entering Week 15 with 12.
Against the Bills last Sunday night, Johnson had two drops on three targets in the team’s first two possessions of the game and that led to him being benched for the rest of the first half. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin threatened in his weekly press conference before the Bills game that he would bench a player if they didn’t make the routine catches and he made good on his word.
Johnson talked on Saturday about his recent string of drops and what all transpired Sunday night against the Bills.
“When I dropped the first one, I thought I have to make a play,” Johnson said on Saturday. “When I dropped the second one, I had it, tucked it and it slipped out of my hands. After that, he pulled me. I was upset. At the end of the day, I have to catch the ball, plain and simple.”
To Johnson’s credit, he did bounce-back after his first half drops as he returned in the third quarter and ultimately finished the game with four receptions for 40 yards.
“I thought he responded appropriately,” Tomlin said on Tuesday during his weekly press conference when asked about putting Johnson back in the Sunday night game against the Bills in the second half. “He didn’t pout. He waited for his next opportunity and when his next opportunity came, he was productive. So, we’ll move forward.”
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger also reportedly gave Johnson some encouragement on the sidelines late in the first half of the game against the Bills while the second-year wide receiver was effectively benched.
“We had a nice talk on the sideline at the end of the first half,” Roethlisberger said this past week. “I won’t tell you what we said. If he wants to divulge what was said, that’s fine. Just trying to encourage him, and I was encouraged by the second half. I thought he came out and made some plays and showed some physicality in some of those catches, putting his head down and trying to get his yards and stuff like that. I was encouraged by his bounce back, really proud of him.”
Johnson said on Saturday that he appreciated Roethlisberger’s talk with him during the game and also indicated that he was encouraged that the Steelers team leader and two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback didn’t give up on him.
“It showed that he cares about me,” Johnson said on Saturday. “Some players wouldn’t do that. For him to come up to me and give me some motivational speech to get my mind back right, it felt good to me. It got me going. He was telling me to keep my head up and asking me if I really wanted to play. I answered yes, I really want to play and help this team win. I came back and went out there and made plays I knew I was supposed to make whenever the ball came to me. I felt like I got back to myself as the ball was coming my way more.”
Johnson’s drop issues seem to be more of a mental game more than anything else and the Toledo product confirmed as much on Saturday when talking to the media.
“It has to do with a little bit of overthinking,” Johnson said. “Overthinking about catching the ball. Once you get a drop that is all you think about. When you see the ball coming your way and you are thinking about it in the back of your mind, you are just like, ugh. You don’t want to try and shy away from it. I have been dropping the ball, but I don’t let that define me as a person and a player. I know what I am capable of doing. I showed that earlier in the season up until this point. I keep a mindset that next play mentality and when the ball comes my way try to make a play.”
Johnson now enters Week 15 second on the Steelers in receptions (69) and leads the team in receiving yardage (694). He’s also the best route runner on the team. If the Steelers are going to rebound from their back-to-back losses and ultimately make a big playoff run, Johnson will need to put his drop issue behind him and rebound with a few big games. Judging y what he said on Saturday, his mind is in the right place to do just that.
“That is what we do for a living, caching the ball,” Johnson said. “It’s been a lack of focus. We know what we are supposed to do when we catch the ball. We try not to think about it too much. We are just trying to go forward by making plays and locking in a little more than what you normally would do.”