As the Pittsburgh Steelers exit their bye week, they’ll be getting some much-needed reinforcements prior to heading out west to face off with the Los Angeles Rams. Perhaps the biggest potential returning asset is wide receiver Diontae Johnson, who landed on injured reserve following a hamstring injury in the home opener. The 27-year-old veteran is looking for a bounce-back season after failing to record a touchdown in 2022 and will be given the opportunity to spark a struggling offense that currently ranks 29th in EPA per play.
Johnson has been a much-maligned player over the course of his career. His tough 2021 season in terms of drops has stuck with people and his tendency to give ground in fighting for extra yards hasn’t always worked out. But his skill set should provide a noticeable boost to a unit that needs it in the worst way.
In just his second season as a pro, Johnson took the mantle as the Steelers’ number one receiver and hasn’t looked back since, leading the team in yards and targets annually. The reason why Johnson has earned a plethora of opportunities on a weekly basis is fairly simple to explain. It’s also the reason that his presence will make a huge difference when he returns to the Steelers’ lineup.
He’s essentially always open.
In 2022, the Toledo product finished first in open score according to ESPN analytics, distinctly ahead of standouts such as A.J. Brown and Tyreek Hill. Quarterbacks like throwing to receivers who create separation and when it comes to creating space, Johnson is undoubtedly one of the best in the business. The primary reason behind his success in that regard is all related back to his route running prowess, his distinguishing trait coming out of college.
Comebacks have been the Steelers preferred way of attacking the intermediate areas of the field this year.
Helps to have a guy like Diontae Johnson running those. Stem to work the blind spot and then snaps it off downhill. That's a lot of separation and a nice chunk of yardage. pic.twitter.com/yf9CD2FF2K
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) December 5, 2022
Johnson isn’t the biggest nor the fastest player at his position, but few understand the nuances of the position better. His most unique attribute is his ability to get in and out of his breaks swiftly, making him a terror to deal with — especially against press man coverage. According to SIS, Johnson had 39 receptions last season as the isolated receiver, third most in the NFL. The Steelers simply put him out wide knowing that he’s going to win his matchup consistently without the need for any schematic aid and that characteristic is hugely important to Matt Canada’s offense. Just being the player atop the depth chart alone doesn’t earn you a significant target share. The real reason for his heavy involvement is that quarterbacks like to avoid throwing into traffic whenever possible and Johnson’s a master at creating quarterback-friendly windows for his triggerman.
If you’ve watched the Steelers’ offense operate without Johnson the past month, you will immediately notice how dysfunctional and out-of-sync the passing game looks. Kenny Pickett currently ranks 32nd in success rate while looking noticeably uncomfortable, particularly early in games. Quarterbacks, some more than others, are reliant on getting into a rhythm and one way to do that is quick-timing throws that get the ball out without as much fear of being of crushed by pass rushers. Without Johnson in the lineup, Pickett’s yards per attempt, completion percentage and passer rating are all significantly down from last season on one-to-three-step dropbacks which are designed to get the ball out quickly. Pickett is not an incredibly anticipatory thrower by nature, but he was developing a rapport with Johnson at the conclusion of 2022 and you started to see more anticipation from him as their relationship grew stronger.
I'm happy that Kenny had a bunch of success as a scrambler on those out of structure plays against the Ravens.
But this is the most important thing to me, flash of anticipation.
Hand separates before Johnson enters the break. That's what I want to see consistently. pic.twitter.com/oC9CdQljlh
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) January 4, 2023
Johnson led the league in receptions on hitches and comebacks last season, and this is where his brilliance at the break point really shines by offering an easy button for the quarterback. He understands how to set up defenders and manipulate their leverage to give himself an advantage, all while maximizing every step of his process without any wasted movement. These timing routes require trust. For as impressive as George Pickens has been in his absence, he’s a different archetype of receiver as most of his damage comes on the vertical plane. A route runner who knows where to be at the exact right time can have a calming effect on a quarterback, especially one who hasn’t quite hit his stride yet this season.
While the Steelers offense as a whole has certainly struggled, it’s difficult to place much of that blame on George Pickens, who filled in admirably as the team’s go-to target with Johnson on the shelf. Whether or not Pickens is a true number-one receiver or not is a debate more for social media, but opposing teams have been treating him as an alpha playmaker so far this season. If you really pay attention to how teams are game-planning against Pittsburgh, you’ll see that Pickens has seen it all this season: clouded coverages, brackets or shaded safeties and plenty of exposure against the defense’s best cover cornerback. The encouraging part is that Pickens has more than held his own and is currently on pace to shatter his rookie season numbers across the board.
The Texans with another C6 rep, clouding Pickens side.
Pickett doesn't see that he has a free access throw to the bottom with the 1/4 defender in off coverage. pic.twitter.com/dHAXKBpxcP
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) October 2, 2023
Even more exciting is that with Johnson back in the fold, defenses have a decision to make in regard to what they intend to take away: Johnson’s route running underneath or Pickens’ explosiveness vertically. Second-year wide receiver Calvin Austin III hasn’t played poorly by any means, but he’s lacking experience after spending all of his rookie season on injured reserve. He’s basically a rookie that’s been learning on the fly. The gap right now between Austin and Johnson, the team’s highest-paid weapon, is expectedly pretty significant. With a full arsenal of weapons that presumably includes tight end Pat Freiermuth, defending this group in man coverage isn’t going to be an easy task. The NFL is about matchups and if you can dictate those on offense, it makes everyone’s job much easier.
While Johnson’s primary role within the Steelers offense has always been outside as the squad’s X receiver, he could still help out in other ways. Pittsburgh traded for Allen Robinson II earlier in the offseason and converted him to a full-time slot receiver in 2023. Now over the age of 30, Robinson has lost some juice and his ability to separate quickly but is still a smart player who can navigate between zones. Johnson saw his snaps in the slot increase last season and more could be on the way. Based on Austin’s usage so far throughout the preseason and regular season, it’s pretty evident that they view him more as an outside receiver.
This is where the Steelers miss Diontae Johnson.
He's almost always the #2 weak in empty. This is a no-contest first down with 18. pic.twitter.com/xEcZ6Du7hT
— Derrick (@Steelers_DB) October 9, 2023
With Johnson back in the fold, there should be an increase in empty personnel with him resuming his normal duties as the number two receiver on the weak side. Empty formations can spread the defense out while giving quarterbacks easy-to-define pre-snap reads based on the leverage and alignment of the defensive players. Most empty passing concepts are designed to get the ball out quickly, given the protection calls, something that would actually help Pickett play more on schedule.
This isn’t necessarily something that they can do every series, but it’s something that they should be leaning into more if they want to be a spread passing team out of the shotgun. Getting Johnson matched up on linebackers and safeties a couple of times per game can give Pittsburgh some easy completions to stay on schedule and out of third and long situations. It also gives them the ability to get their three most dynamic receivers on the field at the same time.
He alone cannot bring this lifeless Steelers offense back from the dead, but Johnson’s return should give them a noticeable boost. If it wasn’t already clear before, his impact on the field is undeniable. Johnson is extremely talented, albeit frustrating at times. In order to get the optimal version of the Pittsburgh offense, they’ll need Kenny Pickett at his best and having his favorite target back in the lineup should pay immediate dividends.