The Steelers have had a big problem with drops the last few weeks, and second-year wide receiver Diontae Johnson has taken the brunt of the criticism launched at that unit for the issues.
Johnson has 12 drops this season, which is the most on the team and as many as second- and third-place Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool combined. He’s also dropped the largest percentage of his passes among the Pittsburgh receivers, with Johnson unable to secure 10.6% of his 113 targets. Ebron is once again second, dropping 8.4% of his.
After two weeks of drops around the receiving corps being an issue for the Pittsburgh offense, head coach Mike Tomlin made a public threat leading up to the team’s Week 14 game at Buffalo: catch the ball or someone else will.
In the first quarter against the Bills, Johnson dropped two more passes and was subsequently benched for the rest of the first half.
It’s been a frustrating turn of events for the young receiver, who showed so much promise in his rookie season out of Toledo, but has seen his drops increase, and his catch percentage and yards per target decrease despite a larger role in the offense.
Johnson eventually returned to the game in the second half. In the first half, he had four targets and one catch for 12 yards. In the second, he was targeted three more times and caught them all for an additional 28 yards.
It wasn’t a monster half statistically for the young receiver, but according to the other members of the offense, it was a step in the right direction.
“Diontae, he wants to win, and he wants to do things right,” offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. “I patted him on the ass before he went in. Probably shouldn’t say it like that, but on the way in, I said. ‘Hey man, we are going to be OK. Get yourself ready because you are going to start the second half and let’s go.’
“He is more than capable. He is an awesome guy with the football in his hand. I just think from whether concentration, or whether it’s maybe young guys not practicing leads to some of this. I don’t know. But I know one thing, he had a hell of a practice [Wednesday], and I couldn’t have been more proud of him. I think as we move forward, I think you will see a real consistent Diontae.”
The Steelers need that consistency from him. As the team has leaned on its short passing game this season, part of the goal is to “throw it short and run long,” Fichtner explained. But that all falls apart when the receivers don’t catch the ball.
“I was encouraged by the second half,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I thought he came out and made some plays and showed some physicality in some of those catches, putting his head down and trying to get his yards and stuff like that. I was encouraged by his bounce back, really proud of him.”
Johnson dropped just 6.5% of his passes last season, so he’s clearly capable of securing the ball at higher level than he has so far this season.
“I thought [Diontae Johnson] responded appropriately,” Tomlin said. “He didn’t pout. He waited for his next opportunity, and when his next opportunity came, he was productive. We will move forward.”