PITTSBURGH — It’s not always easy to get the ball to a frustrated number-one receiver. The Steelers and Kenny Pickett must figure out how to assuage the concerns with Diontae Johnson, however. A year after being force fed targets, Johnson is not seeing them in nearly as high of a volume as he did in 2021. It has led to some frustration for the receiver as he experiences a rocky point in his career.
“Any football player would be frustrated,” Johnson said Sunday. “But like I said I just have to keep dealing with it.”
On Tuesday, Mike Tomlin noted a specific trend of teams sliding to Johnson’s side to try and take him away. No longer was Johnson seeing single-coverage, but instead, teams would slide over his way to try to bracket him and force the Steelers to target elsewhere. It did allow Pat Freiermuth and George Pickens to put up bigger stat lines in lieu of Johnson, but Pittsburgh is hoping to get their $18 million receiver involved.
“Diontae is a known commodity within the group,” Tomlin said. “People are going to have an agenda to minimize his impact on the game, particularly in significant moments, possession-down, redzone football. When you’ve got a guy that’s been a Pro Bowler –and really, he’s kind of the only one when you’ve got a young group– that’s a component of it.”
Pickett was brutally honest Wednesday when asked about the impact defenses have had on his ability to get the ball to Johnson. As good of a receiver as Johnson is, there still has to be a level of scheming to get him open. Pickett does have an idea, and it is to move Johnson around to get him advantageous matchups across the field.
“If he’s getting doubled man, it’s tough,” Pickett said. “It’s tough to get him the ball because they know how incredible of a player he is. I think if we move him around and don’t keep him in the same spot, I think it’s a way to get him more opportunities.”
Right now, however, teams are sliding over to Johnson’s way. They are either capping him with a deep safety or playing cloud coverage over his way. Cloud coverage refers a brand of Cover 3 where a single-high safety floats in the middle of the field, but for Johnson, they are sliding the free safety towards his side and allowing the cornerback to focus on all of the underneath stuff while having deep help.
“If they’re playing man with a safety over the top to his side or they’re clouding a lot to his side, they’re just scheming to take him away,” Pickett said.
At this point, Diontae Johnson and Pickett have a mutual understanding that Johnson is frustrated. Pickett is going to try and get the ball to him, but it is not as easy of a fix unless the Steelers warp around different roles. So, both sides have to remain professional about it until a solution is found.
“He’s a smart player and he’ll say that they are over the top or they are doubling him,” Pickett said. “He knows, and he’s a great player who wants to help us win. We’ll get him in spots to be successful.”