Film Room: Diontae Johnson Rides The Wave Against The Chiefs

The Pittsburgh Steelers went into Arrowhead Sunday night against the Kansas City Chiefs as big underdogs, widely expecting to get blown out by most in the national media and casual fans alike. To the surprise of many, the Steelers defense showed up to play in the first quarter, recording two turnovers two start the game including a fumble recovery for a TD by T.J. Watt to put Pittsburgh up 7-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. However, the offense failed to get anything going both on the ground and in the air, leading to plenty of possessions that they started to convert into points for the Chiefs as the Pittsburgh defense got gassed. Pittsburgh would lose the game 42-21.

Ben Roethlisberger’s favorite target #18 Diontae Johnson was expected to see a lot of work in this game as he had all season, and the receiver did get a team-high ten targets during the contest. However, due to the inability to connect down field as well as a few errors on Johnson’s part, he only converted those ten targets into five receptions for 34 yards and a TD. Johnson operated as a go-to target on plenty of plays in the passing game, getting open like we see on this completion over the middle of the field where Johnson runs a slant pattern and finds the soft spot in coverage for the completion. Johnson does slip as he catches the ball which occurs often for him.


When scouting Johnson coming out of Toledo, one of his issues was his tendency to slip coming out of his routes which has followed him to the league. While this isn’t a huge problem, another bad tendency he showed in college has also followed him to the pros: drops. As many know, Johnson led the NFL last season in drops and was heavily scrutinized and even benched at times for the issue. Johnson spent a lot of time in the offseason working on the drop problem, and halfway through the season, he didn’t record a drop despite his massive target share. However, things have regressed recently as the drops have come back like we see on this easy completion Johnson has slip through his fingers.


As Dave Bryan and Alex Kozora have highlighted on The Terrible Podcast, when Johnson drops one ball or makes one mental error, it seems to have a compounding effect on his confidence and ability to execute. The very next play after the drop, Johnson Lines up in a bunch set to the left, but false starts, moving Pittsburgh back from 3rd-and-8 to 3rd-and-13. This comes as Johnson’s 7th false start penalty on the season, leading the league at the WR position.


A slip, a drop, and a false start. Not a great way to start a playoff game against a potent offense on the other side. To Johnson’s credit, he didn’t completely shut down like last year against Buffalo or Washington where he was yanked for a period of time. Pittsburgh needed his talent and skill set to have a chance to move the football on offense, and he was able to rebound. Early in the second quarter, Johnson runs a drag route from the right side of the formation, easily getting open against #21 Mike Hughes over the middle of the field, catching the third down pass in-stride and moving the sticks.


For Johnson, it’s a matter of consistency and not “riding the wave” as plenty of coaches put it to their athletes, but rather staying steady in the face of adversity. Right after making a play by getting separation and snagging a ball outside of his frame, Johnson reverts to the bottom of the wave, dropping another pass right in his hand by Ben Roethlisberger on the wide-open slant route that would move the chains, but rather forces Pittsburgh to punt and give the ball back to Kansas City who would go down and score to take the lead.


Johnson would remain quiet the rest of the quarter and into the second half as the offense struggled to get anything going. However, late in the third quarter, the Pittsburgh offense finally gets on the board thanks to Roethlisberger-to-Johnson connection linking up for one more score. Johnson Lines up wide right in the red zone and attacks the toes of Hughes in man coverage, getting an outside release and a step of separation that Ben exploits as he puts the ball on Johnson for the TD strike.


Here is a zoomed-in, end zone angle of the play, showing Johnson’s shake as he quickly head fakes inside, instantly breaking outside as he gets Hughes turned around for the easy pitch-and-catch TD.


To Johnson’s credit, not all the missed completions fall on him as Roethlisberger struggled as well in terms of connecting down the field on a majority of his pass attempts on the night. For example, Ben takes a shot here on first down to the right sideline where Johnson has a step on the defender, but the pass falls short behind Johnson rather than to the end zone. Johnson tries to come back to the ball, but the pass falls incomplete as it hits the defender’s back.


Despite the game being well out of reach, Johnson still battled to help Ben move the ball down the field in what will likely be the couple drives of his career. In this first clip, we see Johnson catch the ball near the line-to-gain on fourth down, getting a well-designed pick from #19 JuJu Smith-Schuster that allows him to get up field and move the chains to keep the drive alive.


On the final offensive drive of the game, Johnson catches another short target as he comes back to the football, turning around and runs into contact to get the first down while being tackled by several defenders to keep the drive alive.


Overall, it was an up-and-down performance from Diontae Johnson, which quite frankly has become the expectation over the course of his first three seasons. One moment he makes an impressive catch down the field or absolutely sauces a defensive back in coverage with his ability to separate from coverage, but the next moment he drops an easy completion or sets the offense back with a false start penalty.

Johnson has been widely viewed as the #1 WR in Pittsburgh the last two seasons due to his mass target share and his ability to win in the short and intermediate areas as well as deep down the field as a vertical threat. However, his inconsistencies make him a tough option to trust as a legit #1 in comparison to the like of Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson, and other elite receivers. Part of Johnson’s problem can be attributed to the offensive system and the inability of Roethlisberger to attack down the field like he used to earlier in his career, but the confidence issues pertaining to drops in key moments of the game need to get sorted out.

Johnson is eligible for a contract extension this offseason heading into the final year of his rookie deal. Despite being hard on him since draft day, I was all for extending him based on what he did to start the season. However, recency bias makes me personally more hesitant to give Johnson that guaranteed money should his issues remain as well as his durability concerns he has had to start his NFL career.

There is no denying the talent of Johnson, as he is one of the league’s top route runners. However, with Pittsburgh possibly losing JuJu and James Washington to free agency and the combined consistency issues with Johnson and Chase Claypool, adding another receiver into the mix should be on Pittsburgh’s short list to improve what has been a stagnant offense this season. Whether Johnson is labeled as the #1 receiver or not, the team needs to see continued improvement by Johnson in limiting the mental mistakes in order to help this offense improve as well as earn that contract extension.

What are your thoughts on Diontae Johnson’s performance against the Chiefs? Do you think that the drops have come back to haunt him and will follow him going forward? Have you seen enough improvement in his game for him to be labeled as a true #1 WR and deserve a contract extension this offseason? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section and thanks again for reading!

To Top
error: Alert: Content is protected !!