Week 10, Detroit Lions at the Pittsburgh Steelers, was an ugly, inexcusably sloppy and unmotivated game from the Steelers. They were playing without starting QB Ben Roethlisberger on short notice, but the rest of the team (with some exceptions) did not show up to compete. Overtime was the cherry on top in terms of encapsulating the ugly game as a whole. The Steelers still could’ve won the game, but a lack of ball security cost them late.
This article is going to focus on Diontae Johnson’s performance, and although I will be critical of some of his reps from this game, I want to state that his hands and play overall this year (thus far) has been good to great. He has made a marked improvement from last year to this year by eliminating his drops, in turn aiding himself in achieving consistency.
This week however, drops and ball security issues were at the forefront of the Steelers’ poor offensive performance, and Diontae Johnson played a role. Even though the elements likely impacted some of the circumstances of the game, pass catchers know they cannot drop the football if it hits their hands, and any skill position player knows that losing the football can be a death sentence for the offense when it comes to team morale and make or break moments.
While Johnson finished the game with a decently respectable (all things considered) stat line of seven receptions for 83 yards on 13 targets, when watching and reviewing the game, I felt that he and Mason Rudolph were never fully in sync. The same can be said for Rudolph and most of his passing targets on the day. As such, some fans have immediately looked to blame Rudolph entirely. I do agree that he did not play a good game by any stretch of the imagination, but context matters. Rudolph saw his first starting action of the year, and to his credit (or at least to not pile on him further than fans already have), there were some instances where his receivers likely confused him or just didn’t read the play the same way he did, resulting in “missed” throws.
So, not all of the blame should be accounted to Mason. A QB does need to read and react on the fly, but QB-WR miscommunications, or not being in sync, will always make it much more difficult to complete passes/catches, in turn making it much more difficult to move the chains consistently. Also as noted, when critiquing Johnson and the offense’s performance this week, the weather conditions must be factored into the equation, as upon reviewing the film, it appeared as though footing for route breaks, catching, and QB grip all were likely impacted by the wet conditions at times during the game, specifically late (as I previously stated, that still does not excuse drops or fumbles).
So, with all that being said, let’s get into some of Diontae Johnson’s reps from Week 10.
In this first clip, Johnson (top of the screen) releases outside to get vertical and then he runs a stop route. Rudolph places the ball up over his head. Johnson jumps and fully extends his reach, but he’s unable to come down with the grab as it slips overtop his fingertips. Maybe Rudolph thought Johnson was going to break just a bit deeper or more towards the sideline, but this rep is an overthrow by Mason. 3rd and 4, could’ve kept the drive alive with momentum gaining. Instead, a punt.
This next clip depicts a silky-smooth route from Johnson lined up as the inside receiver boundary side. With the Lions defender in front of him playing off, Johnson is able to get the defender’s momentum moving inside by forcing him to react to the pivot (a.k.a. whip or zig) route. Then, Johnson quickly shuffles back outside to reach an unobstructed spot where Rudolph is able to get him the ball. After securing the short catch, Johnson gets upfield and out of bounds. First down.
Here, Johnson is lined up as the only receiver boundary side with a defender in front of him about 9-10 yards off. He keeps his route stem uniform as he eats up cushion on the defender, then he suddenly drops his weight and plants on the curl route, working his way back to the football to make the catch. Rudolph does a nice job of placing the pass towards the sideline and away from the defender, also giving Johnson the opportunity to open up that way and gain more yards after the catch as a result. Another first down completion.
This clip depicts an out route from Johnson. Johnson (top of the screen field side) stems his route diagonally so to avoid the outermost underneath defender on his side of the field. As Johnson breaks towards the sideline, the zone 1/3 defender in a half-turn, side-shuffle technique puts his foot in the ground and flips his hips to close on him, reaching Johnson just as the pass hits his hands. The defender (#39 Jerry Jacobs – he will be in another clip shortly) plays the ball at the catch point which dislodges the ball from Johnson’s mitts, ultimately resulting in an incomplete pass. I believe the argument can be made that if Rudolph put a little more zip on the pass instead of lofting it, Johnson would’ve had that slight bit of extra time needed to secure the ball before the defender made contact with him. Still, Johnson had the ball grasped with both hands, so an argument that he should have been able to secure it can possibly be made as well. In the final analysis, a good play play from the DB.
Here we have a go ball from Rudolph to Johnson. A Lions D-lineman jumps offside before the snap, so Rudolph knows that he can take a shot to the end zone on a free play. He decides to give the outermost receiver boundary side (Johnson) a chance at a 50-50 contested catch. However, Johnson pushes off against the DB to create space (the DB looks like he might have sold it a bit), resulting in an OPI penalty, and offsetting the original offsides against Detroit. Johnson didn’t make the catch anyway, as it snuck right through his underhanded catch attempt.
Like clip #4, this clip illustrates another pass break up when Rudolph targeted Johnson. In this rep, Johnson is pressed boundary side. After swiping at the one-handed jam attempt from the DB, Johnson takes a speed release to the outside and up the sideline. He initially puts his head down to signal a go route to the DB, but he slows his momentum just before reaching the first down marker, and once he does reach it, he puts on the breaks on a stop route. The ever so slight change in his momentum from full speed, selling vertical, to slowing up just enough to show that he isn’t truly going deep, allows the DB to stay in his hip pocket and put on the breaks with him to contest the throw. The defender (#39 Jerry Jacobs) again plays the throw at the catch point, resulting in another incomplete pass.
Now we’re into crunch time. Late in the fourth quarter, then on to overtime. This rep is one that has been controversial on the interwebs. Rudolph has caught a lot of flak for this throw that resulted in an incompletion, but as the great Dave Bryan has already pointed out for fans over at the @Steelersdepot twitter.
The “blame” so to speak, for this incomplete play on a crucial 3rd down, should be placed on both Johnson and Rudolph due to them not being on the same page. The reason to share the blame is due to the fact that Johnson (top of the screen boundary side) slows up and hesitates to the inside when he reaches open space (it looks like he reads zone and thinks to sit in space, whereas Rudolph expects him to continue upfield). With the two middle-of-the-field defenders having their backs turned, looking away from Johnson, he should have been able to continue upfield at a consistent pace, allowing Rudolph to hit him in stride.
We all know how elusive and explosive DJ can be when he has the ball in his hands in the open field, and this play could and likely should have resulted in a massive first down with some nice YAC from Johnson, if he would have been able to beat the deep safety on his side of the field. The Steelers needed an explosive play like that to come to fruition, as they did not find yards easy to come by on Sunday. Rudolph is not a mind reader, so when the WR does something other than what the QB expects, that’s how these open “freebies” (in appearance) result in incompletions. While I believe that elite QBs are able to “read and react on the fly” at all times as I put it earlier in the article, Rudolph is not at that level, and that needs to be accepted and expected. In his defense, the throw was not uncatchable, and as stated, Johnson made this rep more complicated than it should have been (by actually trying to make it easier).
And here it is. Johnson’s most memorable play of the game, but obviously not for a positive reason. Lined up out wide field side, he gives the pressed defender a foot fire + hand pump release before jetting outside and vertically. He manages to get on top of the DB and does a great job of tracking the football in order to position himself for a catch attempt. After the throw drops in the bucket and he has it secured, he pushes by the original defender to meet another, snatching his ankles as well on his way upfield. I was out of my seat at this point, hoping that Johnson would gain as much yardage as possible before dropping to the grass in a fetal position, thus ensuring the security of the football. However, suddenly I was in disbelief as a defender hurled a chop/punch at Johnson’s right arm, knocking the football loose for the Lions to recover.
With how weird that game was (it has to be up there with some of the oddest games I’ve ever watched the Steelers play), it’s only fitting that 2021 Steelers UDFA turned practice squad member Mark Gilbert, would be the one to knock the ball loose from Johnson’s arm.
After my bewilderment subsided from pondering what had just occurred, when the Steelers ended up getting the ball back, I began thinking to myself: “ok, Diontae. Go make up for it, go make a play.” When acknowledging the fumble post-game, Johnson had this to say: “I was just trying to make a play.”
He did exactly that in this clip. Lined up at the bottom of the screen boundary side, he runs a short dig/drag, catches the short pass, sidesteps the first defender in his way, then meanders across the field with good vision to get his teammates involved as blockers, eventually getting out of bounds to stop the clock with little time remaining in OT.
Unfortunately, we all know how the game would go on to end. Week 10 was one in which the offense will want to forget, but the good news is Ben Roethlisberger should hopefully be leading the group again soon. On a positive note, I do think Diontae’s play has been good to great on the year, having shown clear improvement from last year to now. He’s seen less than 10 targets in only two of the games he’s suited up in, and while he’s only gone over the 100-yard mark once, he’s had 70 or more yards in every game except for two as well. The young and talented receiver will likely get back on track in the coming weeks (meaning eliminating drops and ball security issues). The same is yet to be seen from the rest of the team, specifically on the defensive side of the football (injuries and COVID-19 obviously having a colossal impact).
Thank yinz for reading, if you have any thoughts/questions, please put them in the comment section down below. I’ll be responding to them. Next up is Sunday Night Football!