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Steelers Best Plays of 2021: Diontae Johnson is an elite route runner

The best plays of the season from the Steelers leading receiver.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Diontae Johnson joined the Steelers in 2019, not exactly the best time to be a wide receiver in Pittsburgh. Johnson has led the Steelers in targets in all three of his seasons with the team, leading in receiving yards in 2020 and 2021, and leading in receiving touchdowns in 2019 and 2021.

In 2021 Johnson came second in the NFL in targets, and led the Steelers in targets, receptions, yards and touchdowns. Along the way, he made a lot of big plays, starting in week one.

Steelers vs. Bills, 4th quarter, 11:24

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This catch gave the Steelers their first lead of the 2021 season, and with some help from the special teams, they kept that lead for a big win in Week 1. Take a better look at the catch Johnson makes here.

Bills cornerback Levi Wallace has good coverage and breaks up the catch, at least initially. Johnson is able to keep his focus on the ball and gets a second chance at the ball, securing a catch while dragging his toe to complete the score. Great focus and quick hands to beat top-notch coverage.

Steelers vs. Packers, 1st quarter, 10:10

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Johnson is able to create space for this route with two good inside fakes, first on his release and again at the 40-yard line. At the end of his route he does a great job getting into the defender and slowing down just enough to put the corner out of position to play the ball, and then breaks away and makes the catch. Diontae Johnson brings fantastic releases and a real understanding of how to effectively use physicality in routes to create space. Even as a smaller receiver he is very good at the physicality of route running. He’s not a bully, he just understands how to do it better.

Steelers vs. Broncos, 4th quarter, 5:05

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Diontae Johnson makes this look easy. But watch when he catches the ball, watch his feet before the catch and after. The acceleration Diontae Johnson shows here is how plays like this happen. Splitting defenders and outrunning his corner gets him 22 yards and a first down with the Steelers looking to run the clock and add points. They would kick a field goal to extend the lead to 8 with a bit over 2 minutes on the clock on this drive. This play was a huge part of that drive.

This play also shows why the Steelers like quick route runners at their X receiver spot. Johnson is isolated from the rest of the formation and this slant has no defenders to help to the inside. Any help the defense gives against Johnson pulls defenders from the strong side of the formation. This appears to be an option play for Roethlisberger, where the defense tells him whether to throw the quick slant to Johnson or hand off to Najee Harris.

Steelers vs. Chargers, 2nd quarter, 2:49

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Johnson again shows that while he isn’t the biggest or the strongest, he doesn’t lose to physical in-route defenders very often. This catch is ridiculous, and only works because his hands are so fast that he can be very late with them and not give the defender a target to defend. With the Chargers up two scores and the half winding down, Johnson wasn’t finished.

Steelers vs. Chargers, 2nd quarter, 1:15

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Diontae Johnson throws a ton of moves at this cornerback. I think the best way to watch this route is by looking at the cornerback’s feet. Johnson has him changing directions three times, and there is a tiny moment when the corner is flat-footed, and it lets Johnson create just enough space for him to win this fade. Johnson doesn’t have the height or strength to bully defenders on these routes, he has to create space with his route running, and he does.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 4th quarter, 1:52

Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

This play was huge. 3rd and goal, the difference between a touchdown and field goal, and the Ravens scored on their next drive, they needed this to win. The play design is a big part of the play, with Pat Freiermuth forcing Marlon Humphrey deeper and then engaging his own defender to prevent a switch. But look at the cut Diontae Johnson makes here, and the cut Marlon Humphrey has to make to try and stay with him.

That cut is harsh, it’s easy to underestimate how quickly he is accelerating and stopping. That combined with the forced depth from Freiermuth’s route puts Marlon Humphrey out of the play. The throw on this pass is usually going to be out wide. There’s all kinds of space there and leading Johnson toward the pylon likely is a walk-in touchdown. There’s defenders in the lane, and the throw doesn’t get outside. Johnson is able to adjust to the throw, and still get into the end zone to give the Steelers the lead.

Marlon Humphrey left the field after this play and wouldn’t return for the two point attempt. His absence was given as a big reason the Ravens went for the win following their own touchdown, instead of tying the game.

These are my picks for Diontae Johnson’s best plays of the 2021 season, now it’s up to you to vote for which of these plays you consider the best.


Which Diontae Johnson reception was his best play of 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    v Bills - juggled touchdown
    (43 votes)
  • 7%
    v Packers - deep win for a touchdown
    (11 votes)
  • 2%
    v Broncos - Slant and accelerate
    (3 votes)
  • 6%
    v Chargers - sideline snag
    (9 votes)
  • 11%
    v Chargers - fade route touchdown
    (16 votes)
  • 41%
    v Ravens - shake, rattle and score
    (59 votes)
141 votes total Vote Now