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Diontae Johnson’s masterful route-running suggests a star in the making in Pittsburgh

The Steelers’ young receiver proved to be one of the best in the NFL at creating separation in 2019.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

A recent study from the number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight shows that in 2019, Steelers’ receiver Diontae Johnson had the second-best year among all NFL wide receivers between 2017-2019 at creating separation from coverage on short passes:

Separation is a difficult metric to measure since so much of it depends on the type of coverage, depth of route and how teams defend certain quarterbacks. But the FiveThirtyEight study accounts for many of these variables. If nothing else, the players who show up on the list (Zach Ertz, Michael Thomas, Cole Beasley, Keenan Allen) are regarded as some of the game’s best route-runners. Johnson has had just one full season in the league but may be on the verge of joining that discussion.

I thought it would be interesting to break down some of Johnson’s film to look at what, specifically, makes him such a good route-runner and how, through both scheme and ability, he is able to create separation from coverage. To do this, I examined the final four games of the 2019 season and charted all of the throws on which Johnson was targeted. Here’s what I found.


The Data

In those four contests, against Arizona, Buffalo, the Jets and Baltimore, Johnson was targeted 31 times and caught 23 balls (74.1%). The overwhelming number of throws to Johnson were of short or intermediate range. The total air yards on Johnson’s 31 targets was 228 for an air yardage average of 7.3 per target (“air yards” is a metric that measures the distance the ball is in the air beyond the line of scrimmage to the point it reaches a receiver). If we discount two deep balls that comprised 64 of those air yards, Johnson’s average on the remaining 29 targets was just 5.6 air yards per route.

Obviously, Johnson excelled on short throws. How short? It turns out 16 of his 31 targets were on routes which occurred within four yards of the line of scrimmage. Five throws were actually behind it. This pedestrian chart (fancy graphics exceed my pay-grade) shows just how short most of Johnson’s routes were. It depicts all 31 targets from the four games I studied, mapping where the ball reached him on the field. The blue line is the line of scrimmage. Orange circles represent completions with air yards noted. X’s indicate incompletions:

Clearly, underneath routes at or outside the numbers dominate the chart. This underscores the inability of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to read the middle of the field or throw vertically. It’s an especially remarkable pattern when you consider how defenses, having no fear of being attacked deep or over the middle, pressed Pittsburgh receivers in 2019. Despite intensified coverage in the low and intermediate zones and outside the hashes, Johnson thrived in these areas.


Attacking zone coverage

The simplest way the Steelers got the football to Johnson against zone coverages was to have him squat at the line of scrimmage on the snap. Here’s one such example. This is a version of “Stick,” where the Steelers run a mirrored route concept (same route combination on both sides of the formation). The vertical route from #2 to the trips side is window-dressing. The quarterback is reading one side of the field and progressing from the option route at the hash to the check-down at the numbers. Johnson’s route mirrors the swing route of running back Jaylen Samuels because they both end up in the same target area:

The Steelers ran these types of concepts with Johnson in various ways, including receiver screens and “Smoke” routes where they just whipped him the ball at the snap if the corner was loose. They found easy ways to get Johnson the football in space against zone coverage and allowed him to do one of the things he does best—run after the catch.

If Johnson wasn’t receiving a throw at or behind the line of scrimmage versus zone, he was often running a shallow drag just a few yards beyond it. On the target chart I posted, there are 11 throws to Johnson stretching between the numbers that occur just one to four yards downfield. Many of these are like the GIF below, where the Steelers pull the linebackers deep into their drops with seam routes and drag Johnson underneath, looking to hit him on the move and let him run.

This particular pass is incomplete on a throw that is slightly behind Johnson. Overall, though, the Steelers were 9-11 for 67 yards on these concepts for an average of just over six yards per play. It was another easy way to steal yards on safe throws against zone coverage.

When Johnson did attack zone coverage vertically, it was often on out-cuts to the boundary. What made his success on these routes so remarkable was that teams routinely aligned to take them away.

Here, against Buffalo, the Bills are in cover-2 with the corner at the bottom of the screen assuming outside leverage on Johnson and looking to funnel him inside towards the help of the near safety. Still, Johnson executes the out by pushing the corner off with a good release, breaking at full speed and working back to the football.

The latter two points are the keys to the success of this route. His ability to speed-cut without having to chop his feet or slow down doesn’t allow the corner to read his break. And by working back to the football, Johnson prohibits the corner from undercutting the throw or breaking it up.

We see something similar in the game against the Jets (bottom of the screen):

Johnson had so much success running shorter routes against the Jets in the first half that the New York corners started to slow their back-pedal in anticipation of them. Then, right before halftime, this happened:

You can see how the corner at the top of the screen opens his hips at about the 16 yard-line. He does not turn and run, however. Rather, he slides, as though anticipating a move from Johnson and looking to break on it. Instead, Johnson flies right by him for six.

Johnson rarely went deep against man or zone. But in this case, his ability to separate underneath made the deep ball possible.


Attacking man coverage

While it’s true that Johnson’s separation stats were padded a bit by route concepts designed to get him the ball quickly in the areas voided by zone coverage schemes, he showed his true worth as a route-runner separating against man-to-man. Johnson displayed an understanding of route-running against man coverage normally reserved for veteran receivers. To say his play belied his experience would be an understatement.

One of the best routes I examined came against Arizona’s All-Pro cornerback, Patrick Peterson. Johnson, aligned wide to the top of the formation in the GIF below, runs a deep out-cut at about 18 yards. Peterson, knowing he has safety help over the top, gets into a trail position on Johnson’s inside hip. Watch how Johnson presses inside on his release to create space to the boundary and then, with an expert jab-step to the post, gets Peterson to bite ever-so-slightly before breaking to the sideline.

The separation he creates is just enough to allow for a completion despite a poor throw to his inside by Hodges.

Later in the game, Johnson ran an expert double move on corner Byron Murphy for a touchdown. Murphy is seen below locked on Johnson to the top left of the formation. Johnson feigns a fade route, taking three quick steps before angling towards the back pylon. He looks over his inside shoulder to sell the fade before quickly snapping back to the front corner of the end zone. Murphy does a nice job staying with him but the break is so crisp and Johnson’s angle back to the ball is so sharp that Murphy can’t recover. Hodges, to his credit, fits in a tough throw for the score.

It’s another example of how Johnson both breaks well and sets up his breaks by out-positioning his defender.

In the season finale against Baltimore, Johnson ran an unusually large number of in-breaking routes. Five of his seven targets came on in-cuts or crossing concepts that took him towards the middle of the field, where he seldom operated. This was likely a game-plan adjustment based upon Baltimore scheming to deny Johnson the outside routes he often executed or the Ravens simply voiding the middle of the field because they did not believe Hodges could hurt them there.

The route below is another example of how Johnson uses a defender’s leverage against him as a route develops. Johnson, aligned in the right slot, takes a deft jab-step with his right foot to freeze his defender at the break-point of the route. This puts the defender on his heels, allowing Johnson to burst to the middle of the field and separate from the coverage.

Finally, think back to the GIFs above from the Jets’ game. In the second half, New York got tired of watching Johnson run free and abandoned their zone for more man coverage. Johnson had an answer for that as well.

Here, with Johnson split wide to the bottom of the screen, the corner shades him outside to protect against a vertical route or an out-cut. Johnson pushes wide at the snap, which tells the corner he cannot run the out (no room to the boundary). The corner therefore stays on top of Johnson to defend the vertical. With the corner now in position, Johnson abruptly breaks off his route, comes underneath and works back to the football.

This is an artful route, with Johnson manipulating the corner by selling the vertical so he can come back inside on the hitch. Johnson’s ability to exploit a defender’s leverage allows him to get open against almost any coverage technique.


Looking Ahead

We can get a good idea for how much Johnson’s game can grow by re-examining the target chart for weeks 14-17. Here it is again. As previously mentioned, Johnson did most of his damage short and outside:

As you can see, there is an entire area of the field where Johnson was not utilized. With Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback, all throws and route combinations are on the table. Johnson may not see a significant uptick is his targets up the seam and to the post — the Steelers have plenty of candidates to man those routes, including JuJu Smith-Schuster and Eric Ebron — but Johnson should be able to operate there as well. A route such as Y-Cross, where a defender must chase Johnson across the field at increasing depth, could be wicked versus man coverage. If nothing else, the fact that Roethlisberger can throw down the middle should force teams to defend it more aggressively than they did in 2019. This could provide more space for Johnson to operate underneath, where he was so productive last season.

Johnson has already established himself as an outstanding route-runner. With Roethlisberger returning, stardom may be the next step in the progression for the Steelers’ young receiver.