The Pittsburgh Steelers have been waiting for somebody at the wide receiver position to have a breakout season since they were forced to part ways with Antonio Brown, who evidently still has a lesson or two to learn as he approaches his mid-30s about how to be a responsible adult.
We may be seeing it unfold this year with Diontae Johnson, the third-year pro whom they drafted in the third round in 2019 with one of the selections they received in the trade that sent Brown to the Raiders—for a brief period of time.
He is coming off of one of the best games of his career, catching eight passes for 105 yards and two scores—most of that coming after he dropped a deep touchdown late in the first half. Over the past four weeks, he has caught 31 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns. And you see all of his work on the field.
“I think his change of direction is really, really excellent”, offensive coordinator Matt Canada said of his top receiver, via transcript, when asked about his ability to separate. “Watching his growth, physically, mentally, his confidence, all those things, are really projecting the right way. I think his change of direction, his ability to get down and cut is certainly something we try to feature when we can and certainly something that’s a really, really positive thing for him”.
They did feature that on his second touchdown of the fourth quarter, featuring a hard cut before breaking to the pylon for a very impressive, from a route perspective, five-yard score. He now has 76 catches for 914 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games. Is he a true number one receiver, though?
“I think he’s made some really big plays for us in key moments. Certainly have a lot of faith and trust in him”, Canada said. “Certainly, Tae has consistently, over the year and in this season, been that guy for us. Comparing to everybody else, I wouldn’t want to get into that, but I know we’re all proud of how hard he’s worked and we’re appreciative of the plays he’s made”.
The area in which he has shown the most growth is in his reliability and resilience. He struggled to battle through drops last season, acknowledging late in the year that there was a mental component he has worked hard to overcome.
“I know last year, he certainly battled some things and had ups and downs”, Canada admitted. “I thought he showed what being a professional is. Nobody wants to not make every play you can make. Nobody wants to not make every block, every throw, every situation you have. He came back from that and obviously made a huge play for us to win”.
Do the Steelers win Sunday’s game without Johnson? I highly doubt it. Being responsible for wins is at least one component of being a legitimate number one receiver. So is he there? Does it matter? It will when his agent approaches the front office about a contract extension next offseason.