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2020 Steelers Replay: Week 7 showed the potential, and struggles, of Diontae Johnson

The Steelers young receiver was both great and frustrating in his second season

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Diontae Johnson wasn’t the most popular draft pick in the Steelers 2019 class. After the Steelers moved up in the draft to select an elite athlete from a top 5 conference school at a position the fans wanted a draft pick, Steeler Nation was largely excited. When the Steelers used their next pick on a small, un-hyped receiver from Toledo, the reaction was different.

But fans got on board during the 2019 season, with Ben Roethlisberger out for the season, free-agent Donte Moncrief unable to catch a football and JuJu Smith-Schuster missing time and playing hurt, Johnson ended up leading the team in targets, receptions and receiving touchdowns, and was the most consistently productive player on the Steelers offense.

In a turn that is quintessential to Steelers fans, Diontae Johnson entered the 2020 season being hyped as better than Antonio Brown, a ridiculous level of expectations that nobody is living up to. Diontae Johnson led the Steelers in targets and receiving yards in 2020, but that volume covers a big drop in efficiency. In week 7, facing the Tennessee Titans, Diontae Johnson showed the entire range of his play, his very solid floor, his incredible potential, and the struggles that hurt his production and the team.

Let’s look at the film.

Star potential

Diontae Johnson has some elite skills in his toolbox. First, he has incredible change of direction and very good acceleration, making him a sharp route runner and a yards after catch threat.

1st quarter, 14:10. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the trips formation.

Diontae Johnson makes this look easy, but he’s moving fast when he makes the out cut. He then outruns his defender and turns upfield to get extra yards because he can change direction while moving fast.

That was a third and 3 play, Johnson not only picks up the first down, he gains another 10 yards after the catch.

1st quarter, 10:44. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

And this is why you don’t give Diontae Johnson that big of a cushion, he’s too elusive with the ball in his hands. The reason the Titans corner is back that far is this is a 3rd and 11, Diontae Johnson gains 14 yards for another first down.

1st quarter, 5:45. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Those two third down conversions lead directly to this play, the culmination of an over 9 minute opening drive that set the early tone against a great offense.

This play is slowed down, look at Johnson’s release off the line. The Titans were getting burned playing off Johnson, so they put the corner in tight coverage and Johnson’s releases are some of the best in the NFL.

Look where he lines up, just outside the numbers. After two fakes outside he runs inside of the corner, exactly where he lined up. Those two fakes let him run exactly where he was supposed to run, he just had to move the defender out of the way, and he did. As valuable as Johnson’s change of direction is, his releases are the real strength of his game, because you can’t put him in tight man coverage, all it does is play to his strengths and make him more dangerous.

Also note how smoothly he adjusts to the throw to make a tough catch that, if he kept running, would have hit the back of his shin. Not a bad throw either, Ben Roethlisberger sees that safety help coming and throws it low, where only Johnson can get it, trusting his receiver to make the play.

This play has superstar potential written all over it. The release, the winning of the initial route line, and the Wi-Fi between Johnson and Roethlisberger on the catch. You can see why Johnson quickly became Roethlisberger’s favorite target.

Diontae Johnson would go to work again right before the end of the half.

2nd quarter, 1:03. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

There’s no right answer to the question of how to cover Diontae Johnson. Play off, get beat with yards after the catch, play up tight and he’s gonna beat your cornerback off the line.

2nd quarter, 0:57. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

He’ll do it from both sides of the field too. The great thing about this film is in his rookie year Diontae Johnson was torching tight coverage, but not consistently beating off coverage. The best way to defend him was to play off man and meet him in his route to disrupt it.

That wasn’t working in 2020.

You can also see why teams started keeping a hook defender in their defensive schemes the second half of the season. If you add a defender to the bottom hash mark right at the five yard line, this route is taken away, and the corner doesn’t have to crash this play, and can focus on staying outside of Johnson, taking away a lot of his yards after catch threat. Diontae Johnson has the ability to force defenses to account extra personnel to defending him. That’s one area where the comparisons to Antonio Brown have some merit, although with Brown it was often three defenders being used to keep him contained.

With this kind of skill set, why wasn’t Diontae Johnson a star receiver? I bet you can guess the #1 reason.

Consistent struggles

Diontae Johnson led the NFL in dropped passes, and it wasn’t a 2020 development. In my film rooms on Diontae Johnson right after he was drafted I brought up that he had trouble with head height passes, especially if they were a bit behind him. I covered it again when I broke down his rookie season, and I’m pretty sure you are aware it was still a problem in 2020.

2nd quarter, 15:00. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Starting the second quarter, the Titans are playing off of Johnson so the Steelers go back to him for an easy 5 yard gain with a shot at yards after the catch, but the ball bounces off Johnson’s hands. A 21 yard catch by JuJu Smith-Schuster would bail him out on 3rd and 12, but the difference between 2nd and 5 or less and 2nd and 10 are significant, these drops hurt.

Take a better look at the actual drop.

This triggered a thought in my head. I never played football, but I played soccer, specifically I played goalie, and I coach goalies (albeit in little league), and while that doesn’t apply to football often, this is one area it applies a lot.

Anyone that has been taught properly to catch a football or as a goalie to catch a soccer ball can recognize the thumbs and fingers forming a triangle. That’s how you catch a high ball. but this one is thrown to Johnson’s right, he can’t perfectly square up his hands, and that gets us into goalie land.

On catches like that your ball-side hand is your stop hand, that hand physically stops the ball from going past you, and the other hand is the control hand, assisting the stop hand to keep the ball on that hand.

There’s a trend throughout the 2020 season, and while I haven’t dug back into the full 2019 season, it shows up in the film clips where I’ve talked about Johnson’s drops in the past.

His stop hand is his right hand on this pass. If you look closely the ball hits the inside of his right hand, and bounces off, it doesn’t hit squarely in the middle of the triangle, his left hand has almost no impact on the catch attempt.

Let’s look at an very similar catch from the same game.

3rd quarter, 12:24. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Similar route, opposite side of the field, so this time the throw is to his left, and he secures the ball. There’s no great replay from the broadcast on this one, but I was able to get this from the TV feed.

The triangle works here because his hands are perfectly placed.

Remember the touchdown from right before halftime? It was with Diontae Johnson on the right side of the field, heading to the middle, prime candidate for a drop.

It’s hard to see with his white gloves and the white seats, but Johnson is able to square up to this pass and catch it with a true two-hand catch. This clip also shows off how low he gets to change direction, great manipulation of his center of gravity to let him stop on a dime and reverse direction.

His problems also showed up on down the field passes.

2nd quarter, 3:08. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is a free play, the offsides call negates this play and it doesn’t even count as a drop for Johnson, but look at the ball hit his hand.

Right hand is his stop hand, left hand should help guide the ball into the right hand and then secure it. Instead the ball hits Johnson’s left hand and bounces off. Instead of a touchdown, the Steelers would settle for a field goal on this drive.

Late in the game, with a 3 point lead, the Steelers are looking to kill the clock and they face a 3rd and 3.

4th quarter, 5:42. Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the left side of the screen.

It’s 3rd down and 3 to go, Johnson is going to settle into the middle of the field, but sees the opening outside and takes it. He secures the catch on a high and difficult catch that Johnson brings in easily. Note that his left hand is the stop hand on this pass.

Also notice his eyes as he lands, he’s looking for the first down marker to make sure he gets past it.

4th quarter, 4:07. Diontae Johnson is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.

Same drive, 3rd and 6. The Titans have really tight coverage on Johnson, and he burns it, catching the ball and turning up field to get past the first down marker. Another catch where the left hand is the stop hand.

This kind of imbalance is more common than people might think, hand-eye coordination is not either good or bad, it can be elite for some things and less good in others. It stands out to me that Johnson can struggle with his hand placement when his right hand is the stop hand, while he makes tough catches look easy when his left hand is the stop hand.

When you see videos of receivers using a jug machine to catch one-handed, this is what they are working on. I’m not saying Diontae Johnson doesn’t work on it, and I’m not even confident saying that hand-eye coordination is the problem. I included taht last play for another reason, at the end of the play Johnson is hurt.

He would miss the next few plays, and return on third down. Diontae Johnson is a small guy, and he gets banged up a lot playing football. It happened in college, where often he would be out for up to an entire quarter before returning, and it shows up in the NFL. He doesn’t miss a lot of games, he plays hurt. In football that is a credit to a player, but it also means he’s not always healthy when he’s on the field.

Over half of Diontae Johnson’s drops came in three games, this week 7 game against Tennessee, and his awful stretch in weeks 13 and 14 when he dropped 5 balls on 19 targets. The rest of the season Johnson dropped 6 of his 110 targets, still not great but it would put him well off the NFL leaderboard.

Maybe he let his training slip, maybe injury exacerbated a problem that was otherwise minor, I can’t say for sure. What I can confidently say is that when Diontae Johnson isn’t struggling to catch the ball, he’s a dynamic receiver that, while not at all on the level of Antonio Brown, is a potential star in his own right.

It’s important to remember this was only his second year in the NFL. Growth from Diontae Johnson could be the big story of the 2021 Steelers season. If he can leave his drops in the past, he’ll put up great numbers.