One, in fact, is not the loneliest number. It’s zero.
Precisely the number of touchdowns Diontae Johnson had in 2022. He set an NFL record for most receptions in a year without an end zone celebration, ending last season with 86 catches and no scores. While some of that had to do with the offense’s structure on top of Johnson’s own errors and missed chances, it’s a goose egg he’s looking to quickly erase next year. Speaking at this year’s League Meetings, Mike Tomlin is expecting big things.
“He’s a competitor,” Tomlin said in video shared by the team website. “He wants to be a significant part of the reason why we’re successful. But that’s in his rear view. He and I have communicated, maybe yesterday. His workouts are going great. His leadership among those in his position group is going great. We’re excited about the prospects of 2023 and being better.”
Johnson made the occasional highlight reel grab, his OT reception against the Cincinnati Bengals gets overshadowed by George Pickens’ prime-time catch, but his 2022 season will be remembered by frustration. Drops, running backward, and not capitalizing on trips to the end zone, in addition to just plain bad luck.
There’s no question the offense he played in didn’t help. Throughout the first half of the year, offensive coordinator Matt Canada consistently called out-breaking routes, designs that didn’t allow Johnson to do much after the catch and his YAC numbers suffered. Year-by-year, here are his career per-catch YAC numbers.
Diontae Johnson YAC (per reception)
2019 – 5.2
2020 – 4.5
2021 – 4.9
2022 – 2.7
And he finished the 2022 season with just 235 yards of YAC, more than 50% reduction of what he had the year before. After the bye, the Steelers became a run-heavy offense. From Week Ten through the rest of the regular season, no team ran the ball more than Pittsburgh as it played its brand of ball-control offense. In the interview, Tomlin even recognized Johnson’s numbers were partly “a reflection of us and where we were.” Meaning, a young offense with a rookie quarterback and many, many growing pains.
Entering 2023, Johnson will be a starter opposite Pickens and while he may still lead the team in targets and receptions, Pickens is close to being considered the top receiver in the offense. A full offseason should make his game more well-rounded and Kenny Pickett showed little hesitation throwing to him last year, leaning on the work they put in together in the summer. Still, the Steelers need Johnson to bounce back and return to the player he was in 2021.