While Diontae Johnson primarily functions as the Pittsburgh Steelers “X” receiver, playing on the outside backside of the formation, he could wear more hats in the wake of the Chase Claypool trade. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Johnson said coaches may move him around more.
“I’m sure they’ll probably move me around a little bit,” Johnson said via the team website. “I’m just gonna keep playing and if they move me around in the slot, I’m ready for it. If I’m outside, I’m obviously ready for it. So it doesn’t really matter.”
Johnson was drafted to be Antonio Brown’s replacement, a smaller but shiftier receiver who lacked elite long speed but great burst and route-running ability. In a sense, that profiles him well in the slot but Johnson is a below-average blocker and struggles more in traffic than he does singled up on the outside. Often, he is isolated to the backside as the team’s “X” receiver in common 3×1 formations, allowing him the chance to beat his man and make a play.
Still, playing him in the slot more often has its clear benefits. Johnson has arguably been misused this season, stuck to running outs and comebacks that haven’t offered any YAC opportunity. Last season, he averaged 4.9 YAC per reception. This year, that number has plummeted to 1.9, easily the worst of his career. Aligning in the slot opens up more space, no longer confined to the sideline, and could allow him more chances to make plays after the catch. The Steelers toyed with that a bit in their Week 8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles and Johnson has been in the league enough to comfortably move around.
Though Pittsburgh may experiment with that, Johnson is expected to remain the team’s X receiver. Steven Sims has first crack in the slot and offers similar run-after ability while being an asset in the receiver run game. Though sample sizes are small, Sims is averaging 9.2 yards per carry while in the NFL, highlighted by a 65-yard touchdown his rookie season with Washington.
Other slot-capable names include Gunner Olszewski while Connor Heyward should get an opportunity too. Not much of a blocker, he’s been a smooth route runner and should be viewed as a pass-game asset worth exploring the rest of the season.