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How do the Steelers get more out of Diontae Johnson?

The Steelers top receiver saw better utilization in Week 10

NFL: NOV 13 Saints at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers 2022 regular season is rolling on. Getting their second half started off on the right foot with a win over the New Orleans Saints, the Steelers saw better play from a number of different areas. One player in particular was wide receiver Diontae Johnson. So what did the Steelers do to get more out of their top receiver? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Diontae Johnson had what would likely be considered his most efficient game of the 2022 season in Week 10 against the New Orleans Saints. Only targeted five times, which was his second-lowest of the season only behind four targets against the New York Jets, Johnson caught four out of five passes for an 80% catch rate which was his highest of the season and the most since he had a 100% catch rate in Week 15 of 2021 against the Tennessee Titans. Additionally, Johnson had 63 yards on his four receptions which was a 15.75 yards per reception average. This average was the most sense Week 8 of a 2021 season against the Cleveland Browns where he had 16.33 yards per reception.

With Johnson having a very low yards per target amount in 2022, with his best game being 7.64 yards per target in Week 3 against the Cleveland Browns, Johnson came through with 12.60 yards per target in Week 10 which was his most in over a season.

One place where Johnson came up short on Sunday was his yards after the catch in which he only had three against the Saints.

Another statistic which has Johnson standing out is the fact that he has drawn four pass interference penalties this season which is tied for the second-most of any player in the NFL only behind the five drawn by wide receiver Josh Palmer of the Los Angeles Chargers.

So there are some numbers associated with Diontae Johnson, but what is he bringing to the Steelers that was evidenced by the film?

The Film Line:

The Steelers clearly needed to find more effective ways to use their #1 receiver after the disappointing first half of the season, and they succeeded. Let’s take a look at how the Steelers got more out of Diontae Johnson in Week 10.

Steelers vs. Saints, 1st quarter, 6:28.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is a two tight end set, with both Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry lined up to the top of the screen. The Saints respond with a Cover-1 look, with one deep safety in the middle of the field. Kenny Pickett looks to the center of the field to see that the Saints stay in Cover-1 post-snap, then goes right to Johnson’s route attacking the outside of the field.

It’s the right choice, even though people will surely point out how wide-open Pat Freiermuth is on the play. Freiermuth is open because the defense makes a mistake. Pickett throws to Johnson because the defense tells him that’s his #1 read, and Johnson wins the route.

I love this moment in the play.

Johnson is changing direction and his defender is facing the wrong way and still trying to slow down. Diontae Johnson has absolutely destroyed the coverage of his defender, and Pickett throws the ball right after this moment. This is either a catch to a wide-open Johnson, with a good chance for a TD, or a defensive pass interference play. The cornerback wisely chooses the latter.

Two plays later they go right back to Johnson.

Steelers vs. Saints, 1st quarter, 6:16.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is again a two tight end set, and the Steelers go to 5-wide out of it. The Saints defend it with a Cover-1 man coverage with the middle linebacker in a “rat” role, a shallow zone in the middle of the field. Pickett hits Johnson on a slant with Pat Freiermuth pulling the linebacker on that side into the flat. It’s a standard route combo that the Steelers used a lot with Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron in 2020 before teams adjusted by dropping linebackers into the path of the route. Imagine the middle linebacker moves to the 10-yard line out by the wider college hash marks. The Saints care more about the Zach Gentry route (a route Kenny Pickett hits frequently) and the Steelers get an easy nine yards off the coverage.

I also love this play because Johnson catches the ball at head height and right at his back shoulder. That’s a throw Johnson used to drop all the time. It’s one throw, but I always enjoy seeing him pull in a throw like this one.

Steelers vs. Saints, 1st quarter, 1:36.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers run a lot of these sprint outs for Kenny Pickett. This one is off a play-action to Harris that draws all the linebackers inside before Pickett heads to his right. Diontae Johnson is open here because the Saints linebacker #56, Demario Davis doesn’t get wide enough after the play-action fake. If this play is run with three wide receivers instead of two, there’s most likely defensive back lined up in that spot, and that player is much more likely to read what is going on and get wider.

The Steelers two-tight end sets drew the Saints seven-man fronts instead of nickel and the Steelers, especially Diontae Johnson, had success attacking Demario Davis in coverage. Davis is having a really good season in a Vince Williams-esque role, and like Williams, can be a liability in coverage.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 15:00.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is the only incomplete throw to Diontae Johnson that wasn’t erased by penalty. It’s also being run out of a three wide receiver set. The Saints are in nickel and put two safeties deep. The deep alignment of the defender makes this a much tougher win and Kenny Pickett throws the ball over Johnson’s head.

There are a few big takeaways from this play. First, Kenny Pickett often throws the ball away by just overthrowing his receiver. It got him in trouble against the Jets when Pat Freiermuth jumped and tipped a ball that ended up intercepted, but the trend showed up a lot in Week 10, and several of Pat Freiermuth’s incomplete passes were balls thrown away from the defense more than to Freiermuth. They aren’t really misses, it’s his response to a covered player, he throws a safer ball that still has a slim chance of being caught.

Second, the difference in spacing between a two and three wide receiver play made a big difference in Week 10 for Diontae Johnson.

Lastly, Diontae Johnson wasn’t happy with this throw, he won his route, and though it wasn’t wide open, it was NFL open and there was a window for Pickett to hit this throw for a touchdown. Remember this play and this point, we’ll come back to it.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 6:05.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers again go empty set out of a two tight end package and the Saints put everyone up at the line, This is only a 4-man rush in the end, but the corner on Johnson doesn’t have any help and if his defender doesn’t commit this penalty it’s likely a touchdown.

Steelers vs. Saints, 2nd quarter, 6:01.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers go right back to Johnson on the next play. This time they are running an attack on the deep middle of the field, with Freiermuth, Pickens, and Johnson ending up in a line. Pickett reads the middle of the field, and as soon as the middle linebacker turns to his right and his back to Johnson, Pickett turns to make the throw to Johnson. Johnson makes a terrible decision and gives back the first down after the catch, but again the Steelers put two tight ends on the field and attack linebackers and get the ball to Johnson.

It works consistently because Johnson is so good at beating his man with his route running, that spacing and help defense and the keys to defending him. Putting more linebackers on the field will make it harder for almost every team to give good help to Diontae Johnson’s defender and still cover the rest of the Steelers.

Steelers vs. Saints, 3rd quarter, 1:27.

Diontae Johnson (#18) is the receiver to the top of the screen.

After throwing the ball away the last time Diontae Johnson pulled off an NFL win over his defender, this time Pickett pulls the trigger, drops the ball into the window and the Steelers get a 36-yard gain, Kenny Pickett’s longest pass play of his season.

The Point:

There are multiple factors involved in Diontae Johnson’s much more effective and efficient game in Week 10, but the biggest two were the increase in two tight end sets that opened space and opportunity for Diontae Johnson to excel, and what appears to be a better connection between Johnson and Pickett. If they were able to improve their timing and chemistry over the bye week, we could see Pickett’s confidence in throwing to Diontae Johnson grow, and that could be a big boost to the Steelers offense.

It’s just one game, against an opponent that was down several defenders, but we saw more hope for the Steelers ability to utilize their #1 receiver than we’ve seen this season. Hopefully they can keep the momentum going in the right direction against the Bengals.