You may not know it with the amount of hype heaped upon rookie receivers like Deebo Samuel, D.K. Metcalf and Terry McLaurin, but in 2019, it was Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson that lead the league in receptions among first-year players. In 12 starts, Johnson had 59 receptions for 680 yards and five touchdowns. That was good enough for first, sixth and seventh respectively among his rookie class.
So what’s in store in year two? In addition to a year of pro strength training and all the other things that come from being part of a NFL organization, Johnson will have a full year of catching passes from a 17-year vet Ben Roethlisberger, a mild upgrade over Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to say the least.
How has an entire season with Roethlisberger worked out for previous Steelers receivers in their sophomore campaigns? Let’s take a look back starting with the rookies he played with and how they improved in their second year.
Nate Washington (2005): 0 targets / 0 receptions / 0 yards / 0 touchdowns / 0 catch % / 0 yards per target
Nate Washington (2006): 69 / 35 / 624 / 4 / 50.7% / 9.04
Washington didn’t have a single catch his rookie year, but was a solid contributor in his sophomore campaign, which was Ben’s third year on the job.
Santonio Holmes (2006): 86/ 49 / 824 / 2 / 57% / 9.58
Santonio Holmes (2007): 85 / 52 / 942 / 8 / 61.2% / 11.08
As a rookie, Holmes had a very productive season. But he improved across the board, especially in touchdowns and yards per target, in his second season.
Mike Wallace (2009): 72 / 39 / 756 / 6 / 54.2% / 10.50
Mike Wallace (2010): 98 / 60 / 1257 / 10 / 61.2% / 12.83
Wallace saw a big increase in receptions (54%) and receiving yards (66%) compared to his rookie season as he became one of the premier deep threats in the NFL.
Emmanuel Sanders (2010): 43 / 28 / 376 / 2 / 56.0% / 7.52
Emmanuel Sanders (2011): 50 / 22 / 288 / 2 / 51.2% / 6.70
Sanders was one of the few players whose production dipped in year two, mostly as a result of the incredible rise of his fellow 2010 draft pick Antonio Brown.
Antonio Brown (2010): 19 / 16 / 167 / 0 / 84.2% / 8.79
Antonio Brown (2011): 124 / 69 / 1108 / 2 / 55.6% / 8.94
After an inauspicious start to his career, Brown exploded in his second season with the Steelers putting up three times the catches and five times to yardage compared to his rookie season.
Martavis Bryant (2013): 48 / 26 / 549 / 8 / 54.2% / 11.44
Martavis Bryant (2014): 92 / 50 / 765 / 6 / 54.3% / 8.32
Bryant nearly doubled his reception total after an incredible rookie campaign that saw him catch touchdowns on more than a quarter of his catches in year two. But Bryant proved that his rookie campaign wasn’t a fluke with a solid 50 receptions for 765 yards.
Markus Wheaton (2013): 13 / 6 / 64 / 0 / 46.2% / 4.92
Markus Wheaton (2014): 86 / 53 / 644 / 2 / 61.6% / 7.49
Wheaton looked like he was on his way to being the next Steelers mid-round receiver find after a nice year two. Unfortunately his 2014 sophomore season turned out to be the high point of his career.
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2017): 79 / 58 / 917 / 7 / 73.4% / 11.6
JuJu Smith-Schuster (2018): 166 / 111 / 1426 / 7 / 66.9% / 8.59
Smith-Schuster certainly showed flashes in his rookie season opposite full-fledged superstar Antonio Brown, but it was nothing compared to what he’d do in year two. With Brown drawing the top corners, Smith-Schuster was virtually unstoppable posting career highs in catches and yardage.
James Washington (2018): 38 / 16 / 217 / 1 / 42.1% / 5.71
James Washington (2019): 80 / 44 / 735 / 3 / 55.0% / 9.19
Washington did not live up to his second round pick status in year one with a paltry 16 catches for 217 yards playing with Roethlisberger. But in year two, even with Roethlisberger on the shelf for most of the season, Washington showed the flashes that made him such a threat in college. His ability to make combat catches was on full display as he more than tripled his receiving yards and posted a huge increase in catches, catch percentage and yards per target.
Diontae Johnson (2019): 92 / 59 / 680 / 5 / 64.1% / 7.39
Johnson really began to excel towards the end of his 2019 season as he gained a report with Rudolph and Hodges. And it wasn’t just on short passes, in the last four weeks of the season, Johnson was the Steelers best down the field option as well. A deft route runner, Johnson was tops in the entire league in target separation, which measures the average yards of separation between the receiver and cornerback at the time of the catch. The Toledo product also finished 24th in the NFL in yards after catch and was 3rd in forced missed tackles among receivers. Perhaps even more encouraging was the amount of targets Johnson had as a rookie. The 92 were most since Ben Roethlisberger became quarterback and second most in Steelers history.
So what will Johnson do in year two? His rookie numbers were most comparable to Santonio Holmes who was the Steelers’ clear number two receiver behind Hines Ward in his second year. Johnson’s numbers will get a boost from being the likely number two receiver–and the increase in targets that accompanies it–when the season opens opposite a presumably healthy Smith-Schuster. Although it’s worth noting that with the recent acquisition of tight end Eric Ebron, a healthy Vance McDonald and a deep, if inexperienced, receiving corps, there’s going to be a lot of competition for targets.
Despite that it’s probably safe to say that with Roethlisberger coming back and the offense more geared towards the passing game, Johnson’s numbers will see a moderate increase from his impressive rookie season.
Johnson’s individual metrics; his impressive separation on catches and his ability to break tackles all indicate that Johnson should continue to progress in 2020. and it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see him eclipse 75 catches and 1,000 yards in year two.
Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense
The Steelers offensive identity has been built on efficiency. With Ben Roethlisberger coming off of elbow surgery, they wanted the veteran quarterback to reinvent himself. The good news is that Roethlisberger has done that and then some. Roethlisberger gets the ball out faster than any other quarterback in the NFL. With an emphasis on the quick passing game, the Steelers have been throwing it to their bevy of playmakers to a large degree of success for most of the season.
However, over the past two games, the offense has suddenly gone stagnant. Scoring just 17 points on Monday against the Washington Football Team, the Steelers offense is trending in the wrong direction at the worst time. Without a running game in sight, the passing game has been the Steelers’ crutch. Still, it is something that has become predictable. Washington edge defender Chase Young said that “Baltimore exposed some things” and that the defense could pick up on the Steelers tendencies as a whole.
It is that predictability that is the root cause of the issues the Steelers are having offensively. To the running game and short passing game, everything comes back to their inability to be unpredictable and fool the defense. Perhaps the most important of these predictable tendencies is the Steelers’ affinity to run short horizontal routes only. Bubble screens, drags, quick slants and ins, and smoke routes are essentially the Steelers’ route tree at this point. Every now and then there is a five yard curl over the middle of the field.
That is something that Randy Fichtner hangs his hat on. Ever since becoming the offensive coordinator, he has made it point for the Steelers to get their receivers in open space, create havoc, and let the playmakers do the work. In the modern NFL, it has a lot of great things to it. The fruits of it were shown in games against Tennessee, Cleveland, and Philadelphia earlier this season. The issue has become that Fichtner goes horizontal too much in games. Out of any bunch set, there is at most five route combinations the Steelers are running. Knowing they will try quick passes, teams are just dropping eight defenders into coverage and clamping down on it.
So, what is the natural adjustment to that? Well, it is to take the fight to them and attack them vertically. Now, the type of vertical attack they have is somewhat limited. It is essentially relegated to heavy and pray bombs. The Steelers also refuse to attack the middle of the field. They have only 11 passing attempts for 15 or more yards in the middle of the field this season.
Attacking the entirety of the field is one of the easy fixes for the Steelers. The middle of the field is ripe for the taking given what defenses are throwing at the Steelers. It is a lot of single-high coverage, so if they can isolate someone like Chase Claypool or JuJu Smith-Schuster on that single-high safety, it could be a big play. The Steelers have the weapons to really go after it in the middle of the field.
The caveat coming with a more oriented traditional vertical passing game would be the inaccuracy of Roethlisberger himself. There is a reason that the Steelers are hesitant to throw 40 yard bombs. It is because Roethlisberger’s accuracy is all over the place. Every now and then he finds paydirt, but it is a deep ball that far from what it was prior to his elbow surgery. The good news is that while Roethlisberger may struggle with those extremely deep passes, he can still put a lot of velocity on the ball and push it.
With an arm like Roethlisberger’s now, the Steelers should be trying a different vertical attack. They must go back to what they once did under Tood Haley, and even more so earlier this season. While they will have to toss the vertical heave every now and then, the Steelers can get away with working on the vertical plane. That means a lot of out, curl, comeback, dig, and seam routes. Those throws outside the numbers with guys like Claypool and Diontae Johnson could really be the adjustment this team needs.
Opening up the offense for JuJu Smith-Schuster to run up the seam a bit more and make some combat catches would be a welcome sight. Even running a skinny post or corner route with Eric Ebron seems ideal. Roethlisberger does not have the accuracy on those heave ball types anymore. He does have the accuracy in the 20-25 yard area to still push it to all areas of the field. It is that key distinction that the Steelers must take advantage of to work open this offense. The Steelers have the personnel to do it, the question is just will they do it.
With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start
The Steelers have charged out to a 2-0 start to the season thanks to the stellar defense and the return of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, which has elevated an already talented group of receivers that also added Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the mix this offseason.
At least, that’s how the narrative has gone so far. And with good reason. The Steelers do have a stellar defense, and Roethlisberger has been a spark, with five touchdowns in two games and a completion percentage (68.5) and passer rating (107.1) that would both be career highs.
But the Steelers have also done a surprisingly strong job of running the football. Through two weeks, there have only been 10 running backs to rush for over 100 yards, and the Steelers have two, with Benny Snell clearing the century mark against the New York Giants and James Conner returning from injury to do so against the Denver Broncos.
They’re the only team with a 100-yard rusher in each of their first two games and have increased their percentage of run plays from 33% in 2018 to 42% this season. Roethlisberger said part of that is that the Steelers have been operating with a lead in the second half and looking to run some clock by running the ball.
“Yeah, I think it’s just the way the games have played out,” Roethlisberger said. “We don’t go into any game saying, OK, here’s our percentage of run/pass. We go into the game trying to win it. I’ve just been happy at the end of games, we’ve been able to utilize the four-minute offense both games. I think that’s something that we take pride in. Because when we say we have to run the ball, it doesn’t mean we have to run it more. We have to run it more effectively. And running it in the four-minute offense is effective running.”
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin also highlighted the success of the four-minute offense as the Steelers ran out the clock with the football in both victories.
“We have been able to close games out via the run,” he said. “We have been able to possess the ball in four-minute offense. We’ve had a lead in the latter part of the game and have been able to close the game out and maintain possession of the ball primarily via the run. I like that aspect of it. We are still working and growing in terms of being able to do all the things that we want to do, not only in that area of the game, but in all areas of the game. But I think it is a good start when you have your four-minute offense rolling and you are able to possess the ball via the run and preserve a lead at the end of a football game.”
Of course, there are many mouths to feed when it comes to the Steelers offense. Roethlisberger’s number of quality targets in the passing game, plus what looks like it could be a two-headed backfield between Conner and Snell is a lot of talent to go around and there’s only one football.
Roethlisberger said striking a balance is easy, though, at least when the team is 2-0.
“You look at the win loss column,” he said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who’s getting the ball. It doesn’t matter how many times we’re running or throwing it, it doesn’t matter who’s getting their stats, it’s just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that’s most important. And that’s a win.”
Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way
The Steelers will be throwing their rookie guard into the fire on Sunday. With injuries to both David DeCastro and Stefen Wisniewski, the Steelers are being forced to throw fourth-round rookie Kevin Dotson into the starting lineup. While his college tape looks good, and Steelers Now concluded he could have starting upside, this is early for him to be starting. Dotson missed a good portion of training camp with a knee injury. Not only that but with such limited time, is he really ready to play this early? The few reps he got versus the Giants may be able to tell the story.
There were two key plays that showed Dotson might just be ready right out of the gate here, even despite the “angst” that Mike Tomlin and Randy Fichtner have described at starting Dotson this week.
The first play was this rep against Dexter Lawrence. Now, Lawrence is an explosive athlete. Converting speed-to-power is something he does really well. With powerful hands to jolt pass protectors as well, he can be a real problem, especially for a young guy like Dotson. However, while Dotson initially gets hit slightly back, he does a great job of engaging his core strength and anchoring down. It is obvious how strong Dotson is on the football field, but it is not just in his arms. It is his legs and core that allows him great body control to stand his ground. Other than his dependable anchor on this play, Dotson has fantastic hand placement. His hands are placed inside of Lawrence’s shoulder pads and he is able to control the point of attack here as a result. It was all through winning the leverage of the rep where Dotson was able to get those hands under Lawerence’s pads. A true people-mover it is no surprise to see Dotson play with excellent leverage.
This is a fantastic pull by Dotson on this play to spring Benny Snell. He shows off some hip stiffness, but overall moves pretty well to reach the end here and seal it off. Dotson is the very definition of mauler that plays with violence and power. The end gets shocked by Dotson’s pull and can not get free of his grasps in time to make a play on Snell. This is textbook teach tape for pulls, and while it is not flashy, it is good stuff from Dotson.
Back in training camp after he had just come back and was facing some first team competition, Dotson made sure to let it known he was up to the task.
“I feel like I can make an impact no matter what happens,” Dotson said.
Now with a flurry of injuries, it will up to Dotson to handle Jurrell Casey against the Broncos as the Steelers try to improve to 2-0. If the limited tape says anything, Dotson might just be up to that task.