The stat line for the Pittsburgh Steelers offense Sunday against the Buffalo Bills wasn’t anything earth shattering as the team relied on stellar play from its defense and special teams to come out of Western New York with the win. The same could be said for Diontae Johnson’s game log, hauling in 5-of-10 targets for 36 yards (7.2 YPR) and a five yards TD catch that helped push Pittsburgh ahead of Buffalo in the second half. Again, these numbers are far from some of Johnson’s previous performances, but they are quite telling as to as to how he performed and what to expect moving forward when looking back at the tape.
Johnson logged 44 snaps on offense on Sunday (76%), and likely would have seen that number even higher if it weren’t for an injury scare early on in the game. The two big knocks on Johnson thus far in his NFL career is the drops and durability, having missed time his first two seasons with various injuries. It looked like Sunday was going to be more of the same for Johnson who left the game briefly but was able to return and looked unhampered out there. Below is the play in which Johnson went down, as you can see him collide over the middle with Bills LB #58 Matt Milano when coming out of the bunch formation.
“My knee was a little banged up, but I’m fine,” Johnson said after the game. “Just came back in the game and helped the team win.” When going back and zooming in on the play, it appears that Johnson did knock knees with Milano over the middle of the field. Johnson looks to almost be running a rub route concept to free up #88 Pat Freiermuth underneath by picking off Milano, colliding hard into him in the process. For anyone who has knocked knees in the past, it definitely isn’t a pleasant experience. However, the initial pain fades relatively quickly as Johnson showed coming back into the game after only a couple of plays.
So, Johnson didn’t get severely hurt in the game; that’s a success in itself, correct? Yes, but he accomplished far more than that on Sunday. As stated earlier, the offense as a whole was not pretty, mustering only 188 yards through the air and 75 yards on the ground. After all, Johnson only converted five of his ten targets into receptions. This would point to the drops being an issue yet again for Johnson, but the blame more fell on Ben Roethlisberger’s ball placement and the lack of communication with the offense as a whole than Johnson actually putting the ball on the ground.
Early in the game, we see the offense try to get Johnson involved against a Bills defense that was playing aggressive the whole afternoon. On this play, Johnson catches the ball on a tunnel screen to the right, getting a key block by #19 JuJu Smith-Schuster on the outside as well as #76 Chukwuma Okorafor and #51 Trai Turner to spring Johnson up the field for a gain of 14 yards on the play.
Later in the third quarter, Johnson runs an out route to the right sideline with #23 Micah Hyde dropping down in coverage and #27 Tre’Davious White bailing to the back of the defensive backfield. Johnson recognizes the hole in the zone coverage near the middle of the field and adjusts his position, jumping up to catch the ball from Ben overtop of Hyde who comes in with his shoulder to try and separate Johnson from the ball. Johnson manages to hold onto the ball as he goes to the ground, moving the chain on a key third down conversion.
As was mentioned across Twitter during the game, Johnson was up to his old tricks when it comes to being a savvy route runner. He creates separation so easily out of his breaks, quickly planting his foot into the ground and flipping his hips to separate from the defender matched up with him in coverage.
This overhead view perfectly displays Johnson’s skillset as he bursts off of the line on the snap against off-man coverage by #39 Levi Wallace, stabbing the ground with his right leg and flipping his hips to the left sideline as he then pushes off of his left leg to go vertical up the sideline completing the double move. Johnson puts Wallace on a full spin cycle and would have had an easy touchdown had Ben looked his way rather than opting to throw the contested ball to #11 Chase Claypool on the right side of the field.
Finally, we come to the Johnson touchdown that pushed Pittsburgh ahead in the fourth quarter. Johnson lines up on the far left of the formation matched up again with Wallace in man coverage. Johnson hits Wallace with a stutter step right at the goal line and then breaks for the back pylon, giving Ben the chance to throw a jump ball in the back of the end zone. The ball barely makes it over Wallace who actually knocks it right out of Johnsons’ hands on the first attempt. However, Johnson quickly relocates the ball and brings it in with his right hand, trapping it to his chest with his left while simultaneously dragging his foot across the turf for the go-ahead score.
Here is the sideline view of the catch. As you can see, Wallace played this ball perfectly in the air, but Johnson maintains his focus on the ball, making the quick adjustment to secure the catch while planting his right foot in the ground and getting that toe drag swag in with the left as he falls out of the back of the end zone.
The stat line may have not been enormous for Johnson, but his contributions and development are a good sign of what is to come for the rest of the season. You saw more of a confidence in Johnson as a receiver, eliminating those mishaps of him constantly slipping out of his routes and hauling in the clutch grabs over the middle of the field and in the back of the end zone. All of that practice catching tennis balls and working on his craft over the offseason seems to have paid dividends, as he was still Ben Roethlisberger’s go-to guy on the day as the target hog of this offense.
Seeing as the Bills boast one of the better secondaries in the league and assuming the offense picks up its efficiency moving forward, Johnson could be in-line for the breakout 2021 campaign myself and fellow Steelers Depot contributor Westley Cantliffe have written about over the offseason. This isn’t to say the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and Najee Harris won’t be more involved in the passing game. Johnson has always had a sweet spot in the heart of Ben Roethlisberger playing the Antonio Brown role in the offense. Should Johnson’s consistency stay steady throughout the 2021 season, Roethlisberger’s trust in Johnson should only expand, leading to plenty of opportunities to capitalize on the volume he figures to see this year.
What are your thoughts on Diontae Johnson’s performance Sunday against the Bills? Do you think that this could be a sign of good things to come for Johnson heading into his third season in the league? Are you in belief that the receivers will cannibalize each other and prevent one from standing out statistically this year? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!