The Steelers’ offense certainly hasn't been perfect over their first few games, but they’ve still enjoyed a lot of success. And a large amount of that success has been due to the team’s young group of wide receivers.
Surprisingly, the receiver who many fans thought would have the biggest impact this season, Diontae Johnson, has had one of the smallest on the team this year.
First, there’s no denying that Diontae Johnson is an extremely dangerous weapon in the Steelers’ arsenal, with Antonio Brown-type upside, if he can continue to improve in his young career. Entering the 2020 season, some projected him to take over the No. 1 wide receiver spot on the depth chart following a disappointing season from JuJu Smith-Schuster.
However, despite Smith-Schuster failing to cement himself as Pittsburgh’s top receiver in 2020, Johnson hasn’t continued on the trajectory he was on a season ago. He’s fallen to fourth on the team in receiving yards behind Smith-Schuster, rookie Chase Claypool, and tight end Eric Ebron. And then there’s the bad plays: the muffed punt against New York, the fumbled handoff against Denver, the failed reversal of field against Philadelphia, and a few more throughout the first four few weeks of the season.
Again, Johnson is as dynamic as they come, but his maddening inconsistency and above-the-shoulders mistakes have cost his team more than once this season. He’ll make tough catches all day and then drop an easy ball, or have a dazzling punt return and muff the next. The negatives have started to outweigh the positives for him this season, and like the fans, Johnson himself has probably started to notice.
Sadly, he hasn’t had a chance to change that narrative, as he’s caught the injury bug over the past two games. Against both the Texans and Eagles, Johnson had to leave early with an injury — an unfortunate turn of events that he couldn’t exactly control, but still a tough thing to happen during a time in which the young receiver really needed to prove himself.
It’s still too early in Johnson’s career, and in this season, to make any big predictions on what this means for him. And despite the listing of negatives at the beginning of this article, Johnson is still doubtlessly a starting receiver within this Steelers offense, and has had his fair share of excellent plays through the first four games.
Therein lies the mystery with Johnson. He’s shown too many flashes of brilliance to be given a lesser role in the offense, but a string of bad games and mistakes have made him a smaller, and less reliable, part of the team. With a deep, talented room of wide receivers all making plays in his absence, Johnson’s supposed star power at the beginning of the year is looking dimmer and dimmer.
At the end of day, Johnson is simply too good for his early-season regression to be much of an issue. Like every young player, he’ll have his ups and downs before solidifying himself as a consistent threat in this league, and he still has many opportunities ahead of him this season to get over the bar he set so high in 2019.
A good place to start would be ending Johnson’s tenure as the punt returner. He’s run a punt to the house before, nearly done it a second time, and had some spectacular returns in his short time with the job so far, but the risks could be bigger than the reward. He’s never been confident catching punts, which was accentuated by his muff in New York, and he’s made some mental mistakes fielding them before. Besides, removing him from the punt team would cut down on the potential for injuries, something the team will probably prioritize more if Johnson becomes a true No. 1 or No. 2 receiver in the future.
It’s not like his replacement would be much of a downgrade, anyway. Ray-Ray McCloud showed off some impressive speed and shiftiness against the Eagles, and filled in nicely at the returner spot following Johnson’s injury.
More importantly, focusing solely on his role as a receiver could help clean up some of mental mistakes that have plagued Johnson this year.
There’s obviously no reason to panic yet regarding Diontae Johnson. He’s a talented young player on a talented young roster, who should continue to get better as his connection with Ben Roethlisberger grows. A healthy, inspired Johnson could take the Steelers offense from good to great, and push his early-season woes off into the past.
Diontae Johnson is a due to for a big performance, and hopefully it comes sooner than later as the Steelers hit a tough string of games in the second quarter of the 2020 season.