PITTSBURGH — Diontae Johnson will not curry your favor with stats. Well, at least not in 2022. The Steelers’ top receiver has 56 receptions for 505 yards, which puts him on pace to have his worst season since his rookie year. But make no mistake about it, Johnson’s season is not just defined by lukewarm stats.
Johnson was paid a hefty $18 million per year contract in the offseason. At times, he has pressed to find more targets and produce at a higher level. Even still, Johnson may be pushing to find big plays that have eluded him throughout the season. He still has yet to get into the endzone for a touchdown.
However, Johnson now has a new role that he takes more pride in than just being the team’s top receiver — leader. With JuJu Smith-Schuster’s exit from the receiver room, Johnson is the veteran in the room by far. He has been with the Steelers since 2019, and understands the ups and downs of what he has gone through in the organization. So, when George Pickens had a meltdown on the sideline after a few tough plays, it was Johnson who went there to console the rookie.
Lots of emotions on the @steelers sideline in Indianapolis as #Pickens #Pickett and #Johnson work through things and get things corrected. @PghSteelersNow (Ed Thompson/Steelers Now) pic.twitter.com/cjt3U15T9Q
— Ed Thompson (@ThompsonFoto12) November 29, 2022
Johnson now has the responsibility to get all the younger receivers in the room on the same page. That includes someone like Pickens. Diontae Johnson knows better than anyone how turbulent an NFL season can get. With Johnson a much wiser player, Pickens may take some struggles hard, but Johnson views it as his duty to mentor and bring Pickens along as a player.
“I’m just trying to be that teammate that’s there for him,” Johnson said. “When he’s down and out, I want him to not worry about what it all. For me as a player, it’s my job to step in and be like, ‘hey, it’s okay, everything’s going to be alright’. It’s just about how he responds. He can’t let one moment define you.”
Johnson has 92 targets and zero touchdowns this year. That is the most amount of targets a player has received without scoring a touchdown in the NFL this season. Yet again, the stats paint Johnson’s season as one that is lackluster. But Johnson does not view it that way.
In the vein where he is stepping up as a leader, Johnson is trying to bring intangible qualities off the field. Last year, Johnson proved he could be an over 1000-yard receiver. He is unlikely to get there this year, but he does not care about milestones. Instead, Johnson is focusing on the team at large.
“I’ve come to the fact that I’m having a great year, to me,” Johnson said. “Obviously my stats aren’t showing it, but (I’m) just trying to be a better leader. Just not trying to play for myself, trying to be a team player at the end of the day because my opportunity is going to come, my play is going to come. I’m not getting the ball like I want to right now, Listen, I’m not worried about my stats right now.”
So, as a leader, Johnson is trying to grow. He has drawn on his past experiences with inconsistent drops to mentor Pickens. Meanwhile, Kenny Pickett is starting round into form as a young quarterback. Johnson and himself feel like they are still off a beat. Their chemistry is not quite in sync, but Johnson feels the stats may come back up anyways with Pickett’s continued ascent throughout the season.
“He’s not forcing it,” Johnson said. “Man, he’s out here playing comfortably. With him doing that, if he continues to do that, we’ll make a lot more plays for him down the field.”
Pittsburgh found Johnson early and often with three targets in the first two drives. That could be an emphasis moving forward, but either way, it doesn’t seem like Johnson cares. He has refocused his commitment elsewhere, and Pickens might be the biggest benefactor of that.