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WR Diontae Johnson’s Inefficient Season Continues

It’s been a tough year for WR Diontae Johnson. After securing a (relatively) long-term deal in the summer, Johnson’s year has gone downhill. Sunday summed up his season, an uneventful four-catch, 21 yard performance where he made no impact plays and was never even given the chance to do so.

Through ten games, Johnson has 51 receptions for 456 yards, on pace for an 86 catch, 775 yard season. The ugliest number of all are his zero trips to the end zone after finding paydirt eight times a year ago. In fact, Johnson is the only player in the league with at least 75 targets who has yet to score.

Despite playing a different position, outside versus slot, he’s having a season similar to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Short routes, little chance for YAC, with a per-catch average that resembles more like a tight end than a #1 receiver. Johnson has dropped to below nine yards per grab on the season, 8.9, tying Zay Jones for the lowest YPC of any receiver at his level of volume.

Though Pittsburgh’s been slightly better about using the middle of the field in recent weeks, Johnson has been stuck in an offense that still predominantly works outside the numbers. For a guy like him with serious run-after ability, his route tree has been limited to curls and comebacks and out routes. He’s on pace for just 161 YAC this season after recording over 500 a year ago, a top-ten number in the league.

Of course, when he’s been given the chance in space, he’s just as likely to go backwards as forwards. The risk/reward of trying to make a play and perhaps a guy trying to press and do too much, though it’s been an issue in past years with him. Even after an ugly backwards run in Week 10, Johnson vowing to “go forward” going forward, he tried to do the same in Sunday’s loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. You can even see RB Najee Harris pointing forward to him during and after the play.

Pittsburgh isn’t doing much to help him. With Chase Claypool traded, Johnson should see more work in the slot. He’s gotten a little, lined up inside on that clip above, but the team hasn’t been terribly interested in moving him around. To be fair, that’s not a move made in a vacuum, other players have to then take Johnson’s spot, but if he’s going to be the team’s #1 guy – and he’s sure being paid like it – the Steelers have to make more of an effort to get him the football. Whether that’s bunches, rubs, switch releases, the team hasn’t been creative enough to feed him the ball.

Pickett hasn’t looked his way as much as Mitch Trubisky did either with Johnson seeing just five targets in each of his last two games. In Trubisky’s first three starts, Johnson saw 11 per game.

None of this is to take away from Johnson’s own errors. The couple of drops, the backward plays, and the snowballing frustration that comes with it. After publicly venting early in the year, he’s tried to say the right things and be a team leader, but it’s easy to see he’s upset with how this season has gone. He’s right to be. It’s been a poor, inefficient season that matches the output of this offense all too well.

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