The Steelers have a talented wide receiving corps returning in 2021.
With JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return and the hope of a sophomore leap for Chase Claypool, it is a group that has lots of hope attached to it. However, it seems like Diontae Johnson is almost the forgotten man. The only thing that is talked about with Johnson are the drops. This offseason, he’s used tennis balls to try and rectify the issue, and Johnson believes he can work past these flaws in his game.
While Johnson led the NFL in drops, his drop rate was comparable to other top talents such as A.J. Brown, Michael Gallup, and DK Metcalf. Still, Johnson was benched against the Bills for his repeated drops, and it is something that has to be fixed.
There is something perhaps even more pertinent that must be addressed in order for Johnson to take the next step forward. The issue for Johnson was his inefficiency over the course of the 2020 season. Johnson had a measly 6.4 yards per target on 144 total targets. It is clear that Johnson was more of an emergency check-down option for Ben Roethlisberger at times last season.
Now, this is not all Johnson’s fault. After all, Johnson does not call the plays for the offense, that was Randy Fichtner last season. However, Johnson certainly is not being helped by being turned into a largely check-down option when he can very obviously win downfield. Over the course of the season, Johnson only racked up a +19.2 EPA, ranking 86th in the NFL among receivers.
Beyond the black cloud of Johnson’s drops, his inefficiency and overexposure within the Steelers offense are overlooked. Johnson led the NFL in targets per snap on a play-to-play basis. He was targeted on 28% of snaps of which he ran a route. His skillset is obviously valuable, but an overreliance on Johnson made him an inefficient receiver and actually a drag on the Steelers’ offense.
Part of this is a milquetoast route tree. Johnson only registered 18 deep targets in 2020, and only half of those were catchable targets at that. This illustrates a part of Fichtner’s offense that cut out the middle of the field. The only deep route that Johnson was seemingly allowed to run was a go route and perhaps a rare sluggo route. Underneath, a combination of screen plays, drags, and the occasional slant chopped Johnson’s biggest asset, his route running, nearly out of the equation.
Much like Smith-Schuster, Johnson needs to get more vertical in different ways in 2021. Post routes are a start. However, for Johnson, this simply means more routes on a vertical plane. Curl routes, deep outs, deep in routes, and comeback routes are all routes that Johnson should run far more of in 2021.
Lastly, they must drawback that insane target rate. Defenses focused more on Claypool and Smith-Schuster because Johnson was a watered-down target underneath. His targets actively hurt the Steelers more than they actually helped throughout the course of the season.
In other words, Johnson must be repackaged to use his strengths. Yes, the underneath routes should stay, but in no way should they be at the same volume. More importantly, Johnson targets must be dialed back. With the hope of Smith-Schuster going more vertical from the slot, the hopeful next step for Claypool, and the addition of Najee Harris, Johnson should be less overexposed.
The hope for Matt Canada should be to turn Johnson into an efficient, dangerous X-receiver that teams have to worry about at all three levels of the field. Johnson has the skillset to be able to do this. There has to be a willingness on the offense to turn him into that. Along with fixing his drops, Johnson’s inefficiency must be dressed in 2021 as well.