In the first part of my Diontae Johnson season review, we talked about his stats, how they ranked against his team mates, his fellow rookies, and historically among recent rookie WRs and Steelers rookies of the past. In the second and third parts of this analysis, we are going to look at his film from the season, his strengths and weaknesses, and how his game developed over the course of his first season.
Diontae Johnson missed practice during training camp numerous times as the Steelers were being careful with the young WR and his minor injuries. At the start of the season, Diontae Johnson wasn’t receiving a lot of snaps, even compared to other recent rookies. In spite of that, Johnson was able to flash his ability as well as show his flaws.
Week 1, 1st quarter, 3:05, 3rd and 20. Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.
Diontae Johnson’s first NFL target was a pretty simple drag route to gain some space for the punt team, but Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball a little high and Johnson makes a one handed catch, showing off his quick hands and ability to keep his stride while making off target catches.
That first game also showcased Johnson’s biggest weaknesses.
Not a deep threat
Week 1, 3rd quarter, 5:41, 1st and 15, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.
Here Johnson takes an easy outside release but is unable to get past the defender or create space on this deep route. This would be a consistent struggle throughout most of the season. In fact, before week 10 Diontae Johnson would record only 2 receptions on 8 deep passes. I’ll show both of them here.
Week 3, 4th quarter, 10:48, 1st and 10. Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.
Here Diontae Johnson burns Jason Verrett for a TD. Verrett loses track of Johnson quickly, barely managing to even touch him as Johnson runs straight upfield. Verrett was a 1-year free agent signing for the 49ers in 2019, and he played only 4 snaps all year, this and a 32 yard pass interference call got him benched after one drive. It’s possible that this was the last play of his career, as he again ended the season on Injured Reserve with a knee injury.
Week 4, 3rd quarter, 9:32, 2nd and 10. Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.
Here Diontae Johnson scores a TD on a route where JuJu Smith-Schuster pulls the attention of all three deep defenders long enough for Johnson to be wide open, with no one within 10 yards at the point of the catch. While there was nothing wrong with this run and catch, Johnson didn’t really do anything, just managed to not trip on the grass and not drop an easy catch for a TD.
Those are Diontae Johnson’s only deep ball receptions from the first half of the season. The rest of the film shows a WR who struggled to create space on deep routes against all types of coverage, losing physically after his release, or unable to create separation from trail technique. It didn’t help that his QBs weren’t very good at getting the ball to him deep, but Johnson wasn’t good enough either.
While JuJu Smith-Schuster’s two fumbles in 3 seasons and 221 touches have received a lot of attention, Diontae Johnson’s five fumbles in 83 total touches has largely been ignored. But ball security goes beyond fumbling. For a receiver shielding a catch from a defender looking to punch the ball out is part of ball security. Both types of ball security were a problem for Diontae Johnson in his rookie season.
Week 1, 4th quarter, 13:19, 1st and 10. Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.
A quick slant to Diontae Johnson, the ball is thrown chest high and Johnson fails to get his frame between the defender and the ball, giving the defender a clean shot at the football, and it is knocked out easily for an incomplete pass. You can see how his shoulders are squared not to the QB, but to the far sideline, so the CBs right arm has an easy path to the ball.
Working his way into the mix
As the early season progressed, Diontae Johnson’s strengths became more and more of a part of the offensive game plan.
Week 3, 2nd quarter, 5:24, 3rd and 7. Diontae Johnson is in the slot to the bottom of the screen.
These WR crossers became a staple of the offense with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, and here is a good example of why they worked. Richard Sherman stays with Johnson, but a quick reverse of direction and a juke gets Johnson from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker for a conversion. the Steelers threw a lot of passes right near the line of scrimmage to Johnson, but unlike Ryan Switzer, Diontae Johnson was able to turn them into consistent gains.
This was a significant play for Johnson, to this point in the season his stats were pretty bad, 4 receptions for 34 yards on 11 targets. This play started a streak of 6 games where his usage wasn’t high, but his efficiency was, catching 26 of 35 targets for 321 yards and 3 TDs.
Week 5, 3rd quarter, 5:51, 3rd and 8. Diontae Johnson is the receiver at the very bottom of the screen.
With Johnson not being a real threat on deep routes, the Steelers started running more outs and hooks with Johnson, with a stop route being one of his best weapons as defenders locking down the deep route couldn’t stop and turn as fast as Johnson.
This is a sharp out cut, even if it isn’t perfect, and the defender who hasn’t even committed to running deep can’t stop the catch because of it. However, Diontae Johnson fails to protect the football and again, the ball gets punched out. Fortunately for the Steelers this play counted as a catch and fumble out of bounds.
Early season judgement
The first three games of the season Diontae Johnson weren’t very productive, but when the Steelers changed the offense to focus on short passes and running the ball to help Mason Rudolph and later Devlin Hodges, Diontae Johnson started to thrive. In the second half of the season teams would start focusing on taking away those short routes more, and in the next part of this series we will look at those games to see how Diontae Johnson fared, and what the tape shows of his progression over the course of his rookie year.