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Breaking Down Diontae Johnson’s Rookie Season, Part 3: End of season, and beyond

Looking at Diontae Johnson’s progress and what we should expect for him in 2020.

Pittsburgh Steelers v New York Jets Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

In the first part of this series I covered the stats from Diontae Johnson’s rookie season and where he ranks among his peers and in history. In the second part I covered film from the first half of his rookie season, the potential, as well as the weaknesses he showed in those games. Now it is time to move on to the second half of the season and look at Johnson’s growth as a player.

Diontae Johnson was not a deep threat in the first half of the season, only catching two passes that were 15 or more yards downfield, with both of those being based on defensive mistakes. Diontae Johnson was productive in the first half of the season, but it was very dependent on the Steelers short passing game. As the Steelers entered the second half of the season they would start to use Diontae Johnson’s agility and change of direction to open him up for deeper targets.

The In’s and Out’s

Week 10, 1st quarter, 4:21, 1st and 10, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.

A nice 15 yard in-route here, Johnson’s cut leaves him open, but they fail to complete the catch here. As the fame below shows, this wasn’t an easy catch to make, but he got hands on it and you have to make those catches.

This frame shows is just how much space Johnson creates with his sharp cuts, there is no defender in position to challenge this catch. It also shows the ball was in a tough spot to get a catch. One of the factors that affect catch rate a lot is the chemistry between a QB and WR. Diontae Johnson and Mason Rudolph struggled quite a bit developing that chemistry.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 3:39, 3-7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen again.

After the above incomplete pass and a 3 yard run on second down it’s third and 7, and the Rams are ready for that in route, undercutting the route with safety help bracketing him, Diontae Johnson is effectively shut down. Except that it isn’t an in route, and a quick change of direction leaves Diontae Johnson wide open for a 30 yard gain. This is a great move by Diontae Johnson to sell the in route and then stop on a dime and leave the defense in the dust. This play shows the Steelers investing in Johnson’s elite change of direction ability.

Week 10, 4th quarter, 15:00, 2nd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the top of the screen.

This play is another incomplete pass and another drop for Diontae Johnson. But that’s not what we are looking at. Watch how the Safety is cheating up from the start, and bites on Johnson’s in cut as soon as Mason looks to throw that way. The Rams were focusing on Diontae Johnson, they were adapting the defense to stop him. Now look at the WR to the bottom of the screen, James Washington is wide open as soon as the Safety takes a step toward Johnson. A QB like Ben Roethlisberger would pump fake that throw to Johnson and rifle a ball to James Washington, and if it connects, it’s a TD. With JuJu slowed, Diontae Johnson had the Rams cheating toward his side, unfortunately Mason Rudolph wasn’t the kind of QB that was going to exploit that in 2019.

12-15 yard in and out routes were a staple of the offense with Devlin Hodges and Diontae Johnson, along with the drags and hook routes they ran earlier in the season.

Becoming a play-maker

The last 4 weeks of the season were Diontae Johnson’s breakout games. He led the team in receiving by a good margin, but also led the team in deep pass completions and yards, catching 5 of 6 targets 15 or more yard downfield for 114 yards, 1 TD and 0 INT. The rest of the team recorded 3 catches for 88 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs on 14 deep passes in those 4 games.

Week 14, 4th quarter, 2:14, 3rd and 13, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

This is a great job of finding the gap in the defense as Devlin Hodges extends the play. This conversion set the Steelers up for a shorter field goal, but it also let them kill time and Arizona’s final 2 time outs. It’s not a TD, but this ad-lib set the defense up with a far easier situation for the final Arizona drive in the Steelers 6 point win.

Week 16, 4th quarter, 11:28, 2nd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

I love this route by Diontae Johnson. The stagger-step at the release and driving sprint out of it really sells that he’s going deep and outside, and then he just stops and turns. The defensive back turns his hips to run with a WR who is clearly trying to get outside of him deep, and then has to spin around to find Johnson. Evading the tackle for an extra 5 yards is icing on the cake. This is a phenomenal job of a WR breaking down and defeating the CB tasked with covering him. A simple route executed at a high level.

The next week he would pull off an even better one.

Week 17, 1st quarter, 0:21, 3rd and 7, Diontae Johnson is the WR to the bottom of the screen.

Here he navigates a tricky release and runs a nice crossing route for the only Steelers play to gain 20+ yards in week 17.

The beauty in this route is toward the end of the route. Take a better look.

Diontae Johnson has a lead on Marcus Peters, but he’s running out of field and Peters is gaining. When Johnson slows and comes slightly back toward the ball the CB thinks he has a legit shot at breaking up the pass and commits, only to see Johnson fade back effortlessly and record the reception with a beautiful toe-tap.

This is a phenomenal job by Diontae Johnson, understanding the situation, the trajectory of the ball and the space and time he has remaining. On the broadcast they only remarked in surprise that Peters undercut the ball, missing what a beautiful route modification Diontae Johnson threw down.

Diontae Johnson would end this game with 54 of the Steelers 95 receiving yards, the only player to even gain 20 yards through the air.

Conclusion and predictions

One negative that held over from the first half of the season to the second half was ball security. Diontae Johnson still struggled with keeping the ball secured as he made catches and tried to gain extra yards, I just didn’t have room to show that and cover the things I felt needed to be covered. Just know that the ball security problems covered in the previous post of this series weren’t solved in 2019.

Overall Diontae Johnson had a phenomenal rookie season, surpassing almost all expectations, and with the QB play he had, I think he had an incredible year. More than just stats though, the improvement and ability to produce when the rest of the offense was falling apart really stands out as being something special.

Diontae Johnson’s biggest strengths are in his 1v1 game. If you line up a CB across from Diontae Johnson and expect that you have him under control, you are going to be in trouble. Johnson is really strong in his releases, has sharp cuts and sets up his cuts with smart route running. But he even goes beyond that and shows the ability to be creative and fake out defenders to create space where the play design, and his route running don’t.

Next season a lot will ride on Ben Roethlisberger’s health and play, but Diontae Johnson was showing by the end of the season that he has the ability to be a really solid #2 WR, and quite possibly more than that. If JuJu Smith-Schuster is able to bounce back from his injuries and the QB play is league average or better, Diontae Johnson will push JuJu Smith-Schuster for the lead in targets. I’ve compared JuJu Smith-Schuster to Adam Thielen, and Diontae Johnson could very well become the Stephon Diggs to Smith Schuster’s Thielen. Diggs is more of a speed guy where Johnson is a route runner, but they both show creativity and use their agility very well.

My final take away from Diontae Johnson’s rookie year is that as nice as the stats were, and as good as he looked in some metrics, the reality is even better. Diontae Johnson still isn’t likely to be a star receiver, but he’s a real good one, I would be surprised if he doesn’t end up as successful as Emmanuel Sanders, another really good but not great WR who needed someone else to keep the defense from focusing on him to really excel.