As a third round (#66 overall) MAC selection from the University of Toledo in the 2019 NFL Draft, Diontae Johnson was productive in his rookie season despite playing with a QB carousel and without franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Many fans and analysts alike were excited to see the type of season Johnson would put together in 2020 with a returning Big Ben, and while Johnson displayed flashes of elite-level production, his play was still sporadic due to a couple of factors. Those factors were: injuries and drops. However, when locked in, Johnson displayed the ability to line up as the X receiver, serving as the Steelers’ best technician in terms of creating separation to beat tight coverage on a full route tree.
So while Johnson has put tremendous flashes of potential on tape, he can still take his game to the next level, which would begin to earn him league wide respect as one of the top talents at the wide receiver position.
The answer as to how he can do this; is to achieve consistency/efficiency. As a WR, in order to form a strong rapport with your QB and produce statistically, you have to be on the field. Johnson struggled with injuries at the end of the 2019 season and throughout the 2020 season.
Following his rookie season, he had surgery to fix a sports hernia, then he injured his calf early in 2020 training camp. During the 2020 season he also dealt with a concussion, a back injury, hamstring/leg injuries, and an ankle bruise/toe injury (apologies if I missed any). Injuries which resulted in missed practice and playing time, hindering his ability to get into a rhythm. While it’s completely unfair to blame Johnson for his injuries, it does have to be noted that injuries obviously have an impact on a player’s performance, so they have to be taken into account when having this discussion.
Maintaining his conditioning and strength training (which he is doing as a professional athlete) will allow Johnson to spend more time running routes at 100%. On the other hand, a factor that Johnson is in complete control of is his hands.
Down the stretch of the 2020 season, Johnson struggled with concentration drops (he had a reported 13 drops by Pro Football Reference, and a reported 15 by Sports Info Solutions, leading the league over the entire 2020 regular season for both reports) and he seemed to lose confidence in his hands, which ultimately led to him being benched in the first half of the Steelers’ Week 14 game against a strong AFC foe: the Buffalo Bills. Even though he seemed to bounce back from his trip to the bench, Johnson had a drop result in a costly interception in the Steelers’ postseason Wild Card exit at the hands of the Cleveland Browns. I’m sure we’re all still trying to cope with the outcome of that loss (I know I am).
This film room session is going to focus on some of the drops that Johnson had over a short stretch in the second half of the season (Weeks 12 to 14 – games in which Johnson dropped 6 total passes according to Pro Football Reference. I think that number could even be 7 because they only have Johnson down for 1 drop in Week 12 vs. the Ravens, but I included a 2nd). Johnson’s drops became a main focus of Pittsburgh media during those weeks.
This drop comes from the Steelers’ Week 12 matchup with the Ravens. Johnson’s (bottom of the screen field side) release is excellent, and it’s the best part of this rep.
It’s a low to high tempo (with his first step being a false step with his back leg. However, this is something certain receivers such as Davante Adams have been deliberately and purposefully doing in their release, especially in goal line situations), with a foot fire to eat up space between him and the pressed DB (Marlon Humphrey). Johnson’s goal is to get the DB backpedaling towards the sideline so that he can burst inside. At the end of the slowed, foot fire, Johnson does just that, getting the DB on his heels before planting his left foot and snapping his body inside in order to take off towards the goal line on a diagonal path. This play should’ve resulted in a score, but Johnson decides to use his body for the attempted catch, resulting in the pass bouncing off his chest to the ground.
This is all concentration and technique, both issues that can be corrected if worked on (hopefully Johnson has been focusing on the mental aspect, as well as the physical aspect of catching the football).
This drop also comes from the Steelers’ Week 12 game vs. the Ravens (Pro Football Reference only has 1 recorded drop for Johnson in Week 12, but in my opinion, the drops from both clips just shown were clearly on Johnson). Johnson is the slot receiver lined up just off of the left tackle in the trips set. Johnson crosses with the outside field receiver, and the middle receiver heads to the middle of the field.
The throw is an over-the-shoulder catch with a safety rapidly closing, and those can be difficult to track at times, but it’s still a catch that Johnson has to make, especially in the situation. 4th quarter, 3rd and 5, with just over 4 minutes remaining in the close game. Can’t give the opposition the football back when you have a clean chance to move the sticks and run more clock.
Moving on, these 3 drop clips are from the Steelers’ Week 13 game against the Washington Football Team. These drops are all on relatively short routes (two digs and a drag). They are all examples of Johnson not concentrating on the catch, and instead already having his mind on his plan of attack for gaining yardage after the catch. This could either be due to the threat of defenders in his general vicinity, or Johnson wanting to and trying to do too much, which is a tendency that playmakers often have to keep in check mentally. Before they can make a play happen with the ball in their hands, they need to catch the football, that’s step one, and it’s a very important step (obviously). Johnson was probably in his own head by the 2nd and 3rd drops.
The mental aspects will be huge for Johnson moving forward. He’ll have to tune out the noise and stay confident in his talent. Also, it may be a good idea for the Steelers to get Johnson going deeper more in 2021, as he has proven to be an effective technician on a variety of deep routes. In 2020, a number of his drops came when he was close to the line of scrimmage and thinking about either the defenders near him, or what he wanted to do after the catch, causing the concentration issues.
The next two clips showcase the culmination of Johnson’s drop issues that compounded over the duration of the 2020 season. After being unable to secure 3 passes in a tough Week 13 loss against Washington, Johnson proceeded to drop 2 more passes against the AFC contending Buffalo Bills in Week 14.
As has been the trend in the last few drop clips, Johnson dropped 2 more passes that didn’t see him travel vertically, the 1st being a quick screen, and the 2nd being a short dig route. Both drops were early in the first quarter, resulting in a benching, with James Washington replacing Johnson in the offense before the first half was over. Johnson later returned in the second half and made a few grabs, responding to the benching in a positive fashion following a half time talk with head coach Mike Tomlin.
This clip is from the playoffs, a game we’re all familiar with (unfortunately). Johnson is boundary side and after evading the DB pressing him, he finds some open space in the defense in the middle of the field. Big Ben spots him and makes the throw, the ball zipping over the towering arms of defensive end Myles Garrett. To be fair to Johnson, the throw was a bit high and behind (not a great throw from Ben), but he still can’t pop the ball up in the air like that. That’s easy pickings for a defender in the area, which is what happened as a result.
In a 21-0 hole, the Steelers were already facing a massive amount of pressure to at least get the ball moving down the field, due to their horrendously embarrassing start. This Johnson drop only added further insult to injury, sinking the knife deeper into the heart of Steelers fans everywhere. The Steelers looked completely rattled for the majority of this game, never able to step out of the shadow of their early and detrimental mistakes.
Drops just can’t happen in these games. They’re already costly enough in the regular season, but the postseason is a different beast entirely. It’s win or go home. Winning the turnover battle and generating points off of those turnovers is a huge deciding factor in the outcome of hard fought, often nail-biting playoff games. Gifting the opposition field position and momentum off of mental mistakes, such as concentration drops, is a quick way to punch an early ticket home.
That’s exactly what Johnson and the Steelers did in the 2020 Wild Card round against their divisional adversary, the Cleveland Browns.
Does Diontae Johnson Have Bad Hands?
Did you notice any similarities between the drop clips? As I have noted, most of them came close to the line of scrimmage on short routes. I believe Johnson’s recurring drops issue is more of a mental battle he’s having with himself, rather than him having bad hands. He takes his eyes off the ball, he doesn’t maintain proper fundamentals, and he tries to map out his plan of attack before even securing the catch at times (trying to do too much). On top of that, if he already has one or more drops on the day, it seems to impact his confidence, leading to even more bobbles/drops, and clear frustration.
I do not think Johnson has bad hands. Johnson has shown the ability to make exceptional grabs with sticky hands. He may not have the best hands (his hand size is 9 inches, nothing to write home about), but he can definitely cut down on the drops in the future. Hopefully, come 2021, Johnson will enter the season healthy and hungry, and his rapport with Big Ben will allow him to maintain a positive morale.
Now, after all that negativity, it’ll be good to focus on the positives that Johnson has shown in his two-year NFL career. While Johnson’s sporadic play and drops is/are maddeningly frustrating, it feels that way (to that heightened degree) because of how much potential he shows when everything is clicking. He has all the talent he needs to thrive in this offense, he just has to lock in and limit his errors (mostly being mental). If he’s able to do so, he’ll firmly cement himself as one of the Steelers’ most explosive and dynamic offensive weapons (he has shown this on occasion, which is why Big Ben continues to target him so heavily and why he is fed manufactured touches).
I’m still a believer that Johnson’s talent and skill set will prevail, and I’m eagerly waiting to see how he will perform (and how he’ll be utilized) in 2021.
In this clip specifically, the stack alignment from the Steelers’ two field side receivers forces their respective defenders to play off coverage. Johnson is deadly on quick hitting routes against off coverage (when he holds onto the catch). He’s able to secure easy catches then immediately look to make something happen with his burst and elusiveness.
Here, Johnson runs a quick, shallow out and then side steps the closing defender after turning in a complete circle to make the catch. He then continues upfield and utilizes a little skip to alter his tempo, so that he can drop his weight on a dime to plant and cut away from another would-be tackler. Johnson is finally brought down after reaching the first down marker. He generated all of those yards on his own, his pass target came just slightly past the line of scrimmage. Johnson is lethal with the ball in his hands, even when surrounded by defender(s) in tight spaces as claustrophobic as a phone booth.
Diontae Johnson is the Steelers’ WR best suited for on-the-line, X duties, due to his ability to create separation. Going into detail, he’s able to create separation off the line because of his nuanced releases (he has great burst/acceleration and footwork off the line), as well as his crisp route running and full route tree. In this clip, Johnson beats press coverage from the defender (William Jackson III). Field side, Johnson uses a quick foot fire release to get on the toes of the DB (the DB is in more of a soft shoe technique, rather than true press). Johnson then angles up the sideline.
With the DB still on top of him, Johnson utilizes a fake outside-breaking cut in order to get the DB to bite on what he thinks to be a break, offering Johnson the opportunity to stack the DB and get his eyes on the throw as he continues upfield.
More examples of Johnson’s knack to create separation (even against top tier corners) can be found when reviewing his 2020 tape.
Johnson isn’t a “burner,” but he does have the ability to win vertically. This clip demonstrates how smooth Johnson is as a route runner, which is what allows him to beat DBs deep. When running routes (especially double moves) it looks like Johnson is gliding with ease. Here, Johnson is out wide boundary side and with space to work with off the line, he takes off. He then gives an ever so slight shift to the inside in order to signal an in-breaking route to the DB (Rock Ya-Sin) playing off coverage. This gets the DB to hesitate (you can see that he bites forward on Johnson’s subtle weight shift), allowing Johnson the time he needs to eat up cushion and gain forward momentum on the DB (who now has to turn and run to try and keep up with Johnson).
Having forward momentum to his advantage, Johnson runs past the DB and dives to the end zone in order to make a sensational catch that ultimately helped spark the Steelers’ comeback win.
In 2020, Diontae Johnson received 144 targets and caught 88 of them for 923 yards and 7 touchdowns. That’s solid on paper, but I don’t believe it’s Johnson’s peak statistically (that shouldn’t be perceived as a hot take either).
Having only played two seasons in the NFL, all while dealing with different circumstances that impacted his ability to perform, Johnson can take his game to the next level through achieving consistency/efficiency. In successfully doing so, Johnson would firmly solidify himself as one of, if not the top Steelers’ receiving threat in 2021 and beyond (I think Johnson will lead the Steelers’ pass catchers in targets, receptions, and receiving yardage for the 2021 season).
He is currently the Steelers’ best separator at the wide receiver position, which is why he usually lines up at the X. For the Steelers’ WR corps, 2021 is going to be a big season to watch (I have been focusing on Claypool, Johnson, and Smith-Schuster in articles recently). If Johnson puts it all together and reaches optimal levels of performance, a breakout year could be ahead for the third year MAC product. Keep an eye on his hands in 2021 (and the hands of the entire offense for that matter, because they struggled with drops as a pass catching unit in 2020).