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Tale of the Tape: Comparing Diontae Johnson to Antonio Brown

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At the height of his career as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver Antonio Brown was far and away the best pass-catcher in the NFL.

In his six-year stretch of dominance with the Steelers, Brown was the only receiver in the league to register 100 catches in each of those seasons. Brown averaged an astonishing 114 catches, 1,524 yards and 11 touchdowns since the 2013 season, and while he was absolutely needed to be replaced in the locker room, his production will be the biggest piece of the puzzle for the Steelers to solve.

Enter Diontae Johnson, the Steelers newest addition through the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

Throughout the draft process, Johnson wasn’t very high on many boards after playing his college ball at Toledo. Johnson was scouted by draft analysts to be a day three (rounds 4-7) pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.So after the Steelers selected Johnson over the likes of more well-known names such as Hakeem Butler, Miles Boykin and Terry McLaurin, some fans didn’t know how to react. Yet the Steelers reportedly had a first-round grade on Johnson going into the draft, and were excited to take him in the third round. The Steelers weren’t the only ones that saw potential in Johnson, either.

After digging through a myriad of analysis and scouting reports for Johnson, one common name kept re-appearing for Johnson’s NFL player comparison: Antonio Brown.

With both players hailing from MAC schools with similar play-types, the “shifty receiver who runs good routes” comp to Brown could be considered a lazy one at best. Sure, they play to a similar feel, but that alone shouldn’t peg Johnson in the same class as Brown. Yet when you compare the measurables of both players at the time of the NFL Combine, it’s hard to ignore the similarities:

As you can see on the table above, Johnson is almost a carbon copy of Brown in every physical category listed when he entered the league in 2010. As for comparing Brown/Johnson in terms of production coming out of school, Brown dusts Johnson’s career numbers. With both players playing three seasons in college, Brown had 305 career receptions for 3,199 yards at Central Michigan compared to Johnson’s 135 receptions for 2, 235 yards at Toledo. While Brown remains on an entirely different world of efficiency, Johnson actually has one more receiving touchdown (23) than Brown did (22) with a larger yards per reception (16.6) than Brown (10.5).

Per Pro Football Focus, Johnson was one of the best all-around route runners going into his senior season, as he earned a 140.1 passer rating when targeted. Johnson was ranked as the 11th best receiver heading into the 2019 NFL Draft by PFF.

However, as great as numbers are to look at, tape doesn’t lie. If Johnson truly is getting compared to Brown, there better be tape to back it up in different aspects of the game.

TALE OF THE TAPE

Brown and Johnson had similar impacts on special teams, as both proved to be valuable as return men. Johnson only needs a small window of daylight to turn the jets on, similar to Brown when the ball’s in his hands.

In terms of body adjustment, nobody is quite as good as Antonio Brown. His ability to adjust his body to the trajectory of the ball and somehow come down with it is second to none in the NFL. Yet Diontae here shows a little bit of that magic on a remarkable touchdown catch.

Again, Brown’s catch on the above video is pretty spectacular, and is consistently done a routine basis. However, if Johnson is able to maintain body control like he showed on that back shoulder catch, there are similarities in that department.

Going along the lines of body control, Johnson is somebody who can complete a play with his speed, route running and ability to snatch the football out of the sky with defenders in his area, a play Steelers fans have seen many times when Roethlisberger connects with Brown.

In terms of screen passes, you could just virtually swap the jerseys and be fine. Johnson below displays the same ability to take a screen pass and squeeze past defenders with little room next to the sideline to score.

One of Brown’s best characteristics as a receiver is his ability to not only run a route precisely, but to physically get separation and buy himself room from the defender. Another trait? His ability to turn a five yard catch into a 40 yard play. Johnson displays both here.

Going along the lines of turning something little into something great, the run after catch ability is strong within Johnson.

And if you needed any indication on who Johnson might’ve modeled his game after, look no further then his post-score celebrations.

THE VERDICT

Johnson was a surprise pick to everybody outside of the Steelers war room. Many were initially confused as to why Pittsburgh opted to select a guy who wasn’t very well-known through the draft process, yet after nearly a week of letting the pick digest and actually looking at Johnson, most Steelers fans have come to love the pick. In terms of being compared to Brown, it is a heavy comp to give a third round player. Yet after comparing their measurables and closely reviewing the film, the comparisons are understandable. Is Johnson close to the player Brown is today? Absolutely not. However, Johnson provides an identical product for the Steelers to mold for the future. Steelers fans shouldn’t expect Johnson to be like Brown, they should only expect him to be himself.

Analysis

Analysis: Steelers Must Develop Their Own Brand of Vertical Offense

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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.

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Analysis

With Conner, Snell Each over 100 Yards, Running Game Crucial to Steelers 2-0 Start

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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.”

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Analysis

Steelers Rookie Kevin Dotson is Ready to Step Up in a Big Way

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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.

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