“Whoa, what a catch!” I jumped up and screamed, as Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson seemingly came out of nowhere to make a one-handed snag of a Kenny Pickett sideline pass near the goal line early in Sunday’s game vs. the Bills at Highmark Stadium.
How did Johnson manage to catch this pass and secure it while also getting both feet in bounds?
Answer: He didn't, as the play was quickly ruled incomplete following a brief confab by the on-field officials. While Johnson managed to do most things well during this play, the one thing he failed to do was get his right foot all the way in bounds. It was almost all the way in bounds, but he missed it by “that” much.
If that play looked familiar, it was because Johnson’s left toe failed him in much the same way a week earlier when he did almost everything right while making a splendid catch on a perfectly thrown ball by quarterback Mitch Trubisky in the second quarter of the Steelers game against the Jets at Acrisure Stadium. Johnson showed great concentration while making an over-the-shoulder grab in the back of the end zone, but he just couldn’t drag that darn left toe in bounds.
Both plays would have been tough ones to make, for sure, but that’s why you decide to pay a receiver $18 million.
One wonders how the rest of the Jets game may have unfolded had Johnson managed to come through at that moment. The Steelers trailed by 10 points at that time, and a touchdown there could have changed everything.
Instead, Trubisky, who threw an interception early in the Jets game after a quick pass over the middle deflected off of Johnson’s hands, was replaced by rookie Kenny Pickett in the second half and may never start at quarterback for the Steelers again. Yes, Trubisky’s pass was tipped by a New York defender before making it to Johnson—as the fourth-year receiver was quick to point out after the play was over—but it was still a pass that he could have caught.
Speaking of Pickett, late in the first half of Sunday’s game, with the Steelers trailing by a touchdown, the rookie quarterback rolled to his right on third and six before committing the cardinal sin of throwing across his body toward the middle of the field. “No!” I would have been thinking had I been a head coach at that moment. Instead, I could clearly see that Pickett, much like Ben Roethlisberger before him, had a bit of an “it” quality about him, which was why I wasn’t shocked to see a wide-open Johnson standing there ready to jump up and pull in a first-down pass.
“Come on, Johnson!” I screamed, as Pickett’s pass went through the receiver’s hands and found the turf before a Bills’ defender could corral it.
Was Pickett’s pass a bit high? Yes, but it was also catchable.
Later in Sunday’s game, with the Steelers helplessly down by a score of 31-3, Pickett appeared to keep a potential scoring drive alive by finding Johnson on a quick little pass on fourth and six. Unfortunately, a Bills’ defender reached in and poked the ball away from Johnson just as he was about to head to the sideline to secure the first down.
Was it technically a drop? No. Was it a great play by the Bills' defender? Sort of. But, to reiterate, if you’re Johnson, don’t you have to start winning some of these battles? Don’t you have to start coming through for your team and your quarterback(s)?
What has Johnson, who has 28 receptions for 267 yards through five games, been but a stats collector up to this point in his career? Johnson pulled in 107 passes for 1,161 yards in 2021, but did you truly notice his impact?
Has Johnson ever been an impact player during his Steelers’ career?
He’s been a poor man’s Antonio Brown but without the clutch gene.
You can say what you want about Brown—and we all have and will continue to do so—but the guy was simply amazing at everything he did. You may have been annoyed by his self-imposed nickname, Tony Toe Tap, but he called himself that for a reason—there was nobody better at getting those darn toes in bounds.
You may have been “exhausted” by all of Brown’s antics, but you loved those moments when he would make a catch or score a touchdown right when the Steelers needed it to win a game.
Antonio Brown was an impactful receiver for the Steelers on the field who gave their fans headaches off the field.
Diontae Johnson is a quiet receiver off the field who gives Steelers fans headaches on the field.
Brown’s off-the-field issues eventually led to his dismissal from the team.
While it’s nice that Johnson is quiet off the field and mostly stays out of the news, he could also find himself out of Pittsburgh if he doesn’t soon get his on-the-field troubles worked out.