Most offenses have that one wide receiver who is the volume target. And increasingly, that volume target is also the team’s high-production wide receiver, rather than just being a chain-mover, as may have been more common in the past. Diontae Johnson has developed into that guy for the Pittsburgh Steelers, now in his third season.
In six games played, he is now up to 40 receptions on the season for 474 yards and three receiving touchdowns, all of which lead the team. He has 14 more targets than anybody else on the team, as well, despite missing a game. He’s just the guy that gets open, and like most quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger loves that guy.
He is past the point in his career in which that doesn’t get noticed. He is a guy that opposing defensive coordinators talk about and highlight to their teams in the week coming up. That’s what the Chicago Bears have been focusing on, what Tashaun Gipson, the former Brown, talked about this week as his Bears prepare to face him.
“He’s a good football player. He’s savvy in his routes. He’s smooth”, Gipson said. “I know he had a couple of cases of the dropsies, but he’s been catching the ball efficiently. He can run every route efficiently. He is a vertical threat. He can stretch the top. Our cornerbacks will have their hands full”.
Antonio Brown was able to thrive for many years in this offense because of the efficiency of his route-running and Roethlisberger’s willingness to take advantage of it. His relationship with Johnson isn’t quite on that level, but it is certainly to the successor to that dynamic.
“I have seen his game grow from last year to this year. He is growing into a good football player”, Gipson said. “I can see why Ben trusts him because some of the routes he runs are pretty crazy and Ben Roethlisberger knows where to find him. Obviously losing No. 19 (JuJu Smith-Schuster) hurts and somebody needed to step up and I think No. 18 (Johnson) is doing that right now. In my opinion I think he is their best receiver. He is going to get his targets”.
In 15 games last season, while missing substantial time in a couple of others, Johnson recorded 88 receptions for 923 yards and seven touchdowns. He is currently on pace to finish this season with 107 receptions for 1,264 yards and eight or nine touchdowns.
It is a big year for him, as he will be going into the final year of his rookie contract. Still, with Chase Claypool coming up behind him, it’s not obvious that they will make serious efforts to extend him even if he does end up having a big year.