CLEVELAND — With the game on the line in the final minutes against the rival Cleveland Browns on Sunday, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett dropped back to pass, looking for another game-winning drive to add to his collection and growing reputation as a clutch, if not great, quarterback.
Pickett scanned the field and looked to his right, finding star wide receiver Diontae Johnson is one-on-one coverage, something the Steelers had been seeking all day. Pickett also had plenty of time to throw, a rarity against an elite Cleveland pass rush.
He set his feet and heaved, sending a streak 40 yards down the right sideline. The perfect spiral landed harmless at the Cleveland 30 yard line. When it did, there wasn’t a Steelers player in the frame of the CBS television cameras broadcasting the game.
Johnson had stopped his route. Pickett expected him to continue. The Steelers punted, and lost, 13-10.
“We had a couple miscommunications,” Pickett said after the game. “It’s something that can’t happen. We have to get it ironed out, obviously. Especially in a moment like that and we had some earlier in the game.”
But the understanding between Pickett and Johnson has been off repeatedly this season.
Pickett threw behind Johnson in the end zone in the team’s Week 9 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. He said he expected Johnson to sit down in the zone coverage, but Johnson kept moving toward the middle of field safety. The ball was behind him, and he slipped for a crucial missed completion.
Last week against the Green Bay Packers, Johnson modified his route seeing an hole in the Packers coverage and taking off down the field with his arm raised. Pickett didn’t see him. He checked down to Jaylen Warren instead.
Earlier in the game against the Browns, Johnson ran a dig. Pickett threw a hitch. That obvious miscommunication caused a Steelers punt. Johnson didn’t speak to media after the game, but he said on X on Monday that he ran the correct route.
Ran the route I was suppose to sir. Jus saying anything for likes smh https://t.co/xQpQQkyZe1
— Diontae Johnson (@Juiceup__3) November 20, 2023
It’s past the midway point in the season, and the Steelers’ starting quarterback and top wide receiver do not seem to be able connect.
“It’s always concerning whenever it comes up,” Pickett said. “You don’t want to have that. We’ve just got to get it worked out.”
Fellow receiver George Pickens said he feels like the team makes those connections in practice, but that something is falling apart when it comes to translating results into game play.
“I feel like we do enough chemistry stuff in practice but when it comes time for the game, something’s off,” he said. “All we can do is keep working and dial in.”