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Steelers Superlatives: Diontae Johnson is a WR3, and Kenny Pickett is doomed to the shadow realm

This week, we plumb the depths of overrated receivers, Kenny Pickett’s struggles, the NFL Draft, and more

enny Pickett #8 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs across the field during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans at Acrisure Stadium on November 2, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

Behind The Steel Curtain commenters offered some thermonuclear insights this weekened. Well done. Let’s dig in.

DJ [Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson] is a decent NFL WR but, he is no where near a number 1. It is a shame that he sees 140 plus targets a year. He is a middle of the pack wideout. He isn’t explosive, he doesn’t have great hands and he doesn’t make big plays. He may be a good route runner but, that’s it. I couldn’t believe they re-signed him to a larger contract. He doesn’t do anything spectacular with the ball in his hands. He would be a number 3 WR on a lot of teams. If you’re a fan of his, just go compare his numbers with the other top WRs in the league. They need an upgrade.— SRTnick88

There’s a lot to unpack here, so we’ll start with the 140-plus targets thing because my knee-jerk reaction was that this cannot possibly be true. Sure enough, Johnson averaged more than 150 targets per season from the 2020 season through the 2022 season. Last season, he was the sixth-most targeted receiver in the NFL; in 2020 and 2021, he ranked sixth and second in the NFL in targets, respectively. Just an obscenely voluminous quantity of targets. The issue is that Johnson’s statistical output is not reflective of his target share.

By way of example: last season, Johnson was targeted 147 times. He caught 86 passes for 882 yards and, impossibly, did not score a single receiving touchdown. Eagles receiver A.J. Brown, meanwhile, caught 88 passes for 1,496 yards and 11 touchdowns on 145 targets.

Another example: in his final three years with the Steelers, Antonio Brown averaged roughly 160 targets per season. He also averaged 103 receptions, 1,370 yards, and 12 touchdowns per season in that same stretch. From 2020 through 2022, Johnson averaged 93 receptions, 988 yards, and five touchdowns per season.

It is profoundly important to note that A.J. Brown and Antonio Brown operated within vastly superior offensive frameworks to what the Steelers are toiling under this season, but there is a big enough sample size to support the argument that Johnson is not a superstar-caliber receiver despite handling a super-sized target share.

But the rest of this comment doesn’t strike me as an entirely accurate representation of what Diontae Johnson is and has been. I went ahead and did as the reader asked and compared Johnson’s stats to some of the other top receivers in the league. We’re splitting hairs if we dig too much into quantifying explosivity, but Johnson is among the most adept receivers in the NFL at gaining separation and getting open.

The idea that he doesn’t have good hands isn’t supported by math; he dropped seven passes in 2022, but his drop rate (i.e., the percentage of passes he dropped per target) was only 4.8%, which ranks above the likes of Travis Kelce (5.3%), Deebo Samuel (9.8%), and Ja’Marr Chase (8.2%). The absence of “big plays” is largely beyond Johnson’s immediate control because he can’t throw the ball to himself (his average depth of target last year was roughly 10 yards, so what tended to happen was Johnson catching a slant or curl and getting gang-tackled immediately), or tell his blockers what to do, but when he does get the ball in his hands, he is indeed capable of the spectacular (he broke as many tackles as a receiver last season as Christian McCaffrey). If anything, Johnson oftentimes does too much when he gets the ball in his hands, forcing two or three defenders to tackle air but then getting stonewalled as he tries to backtrack (I suspect this penchant also played a role in Johnson’s lowly yards after catch figure last season).

Johnson does unmistakably resemble a “middle of the pack” receiver if you narrow the lens enough to view him entirely in the context of the offense in which he operates, but given that the entire Steelers offense is a barren moonscape of inactivity, assuming that Johnson is bad because the Steelers are bad is kind of like unilaterally declaring that all white meat turkey is “too dry” because you’ve never luxuriated in the savory rhapsody that accompanies a properly-rested bird. Buy an instant-read thermometer this Thanksgiving, remove the turkey from the oven when it’s maybe like 5-10 degrees shy of its target temp, and let it come the rest of the way to temperature under tented foil.

What I’m saying is that if Diontae Johnson played for the Chiefs he’d be a top eight-ish receiver in the NFL. Fight me.

To me it always looks like Kenny takes a bit too long to see that a guy is going to get open. By then it’s too late for something great to happen. I assume that will speed up in time. Plus, he seems to stay in pocket when better to roll or rolls out away from a guy getting open. Again….hoping experience fixes this. He’s 18 games in. I think if by end of 2024 this doesn’t improve then Kenny might be let go or downgraded to backup. Ragnar808

I, too, have noticed Pickett’s tendency to render decisions that seem to run counter to the best course of action. The play where he had his knee pretzeled against Texans was a prime example of an instance where Pickett would have benefitted from exercising more poise in the pocket. It is fair to note that Pickett is still in the very nascent stages of his career and that it stands to reason that further exposure to game speed will help him sort out his decision-making. However, an 18-game sample size isn’t exactly insignificant, so it’s not like the concerns about Pickett’s learning curve and longer-term prospects were pulled from the ether.

I think the timeline Ragnar articulated here is accurate. On a completely unrelated note, University of Texas quarterback Arch Manning will be draft-eligible in 2026. Interesting, that!

Finally — come at me, Pickett Apologists. I’m beyond exhausted of hearing about how he’s not part of the problem. He is leaving several big plays on the field every single week, whether it’s due to his lackluster arm strength, his slow processing, his happy feet, the list is endless and the OH 20 GAMES ISN’T ENOUGH OF A SAMPLE rings hollow to me. He hasn’t developed at all since entering the league. If you want to hitch our wagon to the hope that he suddenly becomes amazing in his third season that’s your prerogative, but I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again…I want a quarterback in 2024 and I don’t care what it costs to move up.— JV2K13

This constitutes just part of a sneering derision that JV2K13 posted. JV2K13 is one of the most thoughtful, insightful commenters on this blog, so the inclusion of this screed isn’t to put them on blast, but to underline their very legitimate criticism of Kenny Pickett, who is absolutely complicit in the Steelers’ offensive struggles to this point in the season.

I do think, though, that attributing fault for the offense’s struggles to specific parties is complicated and nuanced to the point that it becomes almost pointless. The Steelers do not have a clear best player on that side of the ball, and the one unit that could be perceived as a relative strength—the receiving corps—is severely limited in its ability to spur an impact because the quarterback can’t throw them the ball, but the quarterback can’t throw the receivers the ball because they aren’t open, but they aren’t open because the other team dropped eight defenders into coverage, because the Steelers aren’t a rushing threat, and they aren’t a rushing threat because the offensive line is so bad, but the offensive line is so bad because they’re poorly coached and because management did a poor job scouting them in the first place, and the team is poorly managed because ownership clings to some antiquated view of promoting from within and the autonomy afforded to the head coach and GM is purely superficial. The rot emanates from the top.

Pickett is a problem, but he’s far from the only one.

Last week: they need to let Kenny run the offense
This week: It’s 1976 again, baby! — ElRocco337

That’s Steelers fans, buddy. Tune in next week for a blistering-hot FAHR TAWMLIN take but check back the week after that for a blog making his Coach of the Year case.

I hate Goodell the NFL for all the ambiguous rules, ticky tack flags, and these ridiculous fines.Its not enough for me to stop following the Steelers but i sure dont waste my timewatching and worrying about every game anymore. — Discipline of Steel

This comment is in reference to the fine Jaylen Warren received for giving an edge rusher a love tap. I read that the NFL apparently puts player fines into a trust that it distributes back to “legends in need” and to “support the health, safety and wellness of athletes across all levels.” A noble task! Behold the almighty and benevolent NFL leveraging excessive and arbitrary fines to forcibly strip current players of their game checks in pursuit of the greater good! Never mind that the NFL recently signed a $100 billion media rights agreement, or that the aggregate value of the NFL’s teams is $163 billion; there is simply no other way to support valuable initiatives than by enacting fiscally punitive measures against players whose careers last fewer than three years on average and who are alarmingly prone to financial ruin once their playing days are over.

I’m gonna cut the rest of this off before I start reciting Das Kapital, but Roger Goodell is indeed a manifestly terrible person and among the slimiest lizards in any executive suite anywhere on the entire planet. His net worth is upwards of $200 million; he could pay the aggregate total of every fine issued at this point in the season and not even notice a blip in his finances. He is wholly deserving of the symphony of boos that greet him during every draft telecast. So, like Discipline of Steel, I hate the NFL. And I have for a while.

If you live in a state where it’s legal and you’re confident in your ability to do so responsibly, I recommend gambling. In 2018, my wife and I made a last-minute decision to go to the divisional playoff game against Jacksonville. Our apartment was only a few miles from the stadium, so we grabbed some cheap-ish tickets from Ticketmaster (which also sucks and deserves maximum opprobrium and ideally strict governmental oversight) and drove over. By the time we got parked and into the stadium, the Jaguars were up 21-0 and we spent the rest of the afternoon in 15-degree weather watching in abject horror as Blake Bortles et al. put 45 points on what was on paper the most talented Steelers team I’d ever seen. I went through all five stages of grief pretty quickly and walked out of the stadium that day wondering why I allowed something purely voluntary to impact me to such a considerable extent. For the next season, I sort of compartmentalized my feelings about the Steelers and stopped caring about other games nearly altogether, but then COVID happened, sports were taken from me, we got that incredibly weird COVID season, and I came into the 2021 season ready to love and appreciate football again and decided to set up a DraftKings account. And thanks to gambling, I regained that love (of football; I still abhor the NFL as an institution). Betting on outcomes or parlaying a bunch of different ones made every game inherently more compelling and, by extension, vastly more entertaining. So if you are genuinely questioning your love of football, I’d recommend looking into that.

TL;DR: I, uh, started gambling…to [checks notes] repair my relationship with something that harmed me emotionally? It sounds a lot worse when you parse it down.

I think the only time a player should get fined is for unsportsmanlike conduct after the play and taunting. Things that happen bang bang should not be a fine. But if its after the play and you have complete control of your body and thoughts and you go hit someone then you should get a fine. If you taunt someone it should be a fine. But I also think taunting should be specifically tossing a ball or other object (towel) at an opposing player or standing over them after laying them out (just happened to juju again). — Woodsman081

I think they should eliminate fines for on-field stuff altogether. Players who commit egregious penalties should be subject to warnings and suspensions for repeated offenders; if a primary motivation for issuing fines is deterrence, the threat of losing out on pay (or losing playing time, or a player losing their spot in the rotation because someone outplayed them in their absence) should still work. They are professionals, after all. It would be cool if the NFL implemented some sort of system whereby especially harsh penalties (or infractions determined retroactively by way of video review) carry over, like points on a driver’s license or how yellow cards work in the English Premier League. Two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in consecutive weeks = a one-game suspension. Players can still appeal.

Taunting that does not escalate to physical confrontation should not be subject to fines. Withholding pay from a grown adult because they were mean to another grown adult is insane.

The LV Raiders have fired their HC, GM and OC, and benched Jimmy G after the loss to the Lions.Take from it what you will. But I see a passionate owner who will not accept mediocrity. — CT-Steeler4Life

What a damning indictment of the state of things, my goodness. Do you realize how grim things have to be that the RAIDERS are viewed as exemplars of organizational integrity? Launch the Steelers into the sun.

Josh McDaniels for OC? Raiders just fired him. Timing couldn’t be better to get rid of Canada. Actually any time since he was hired would have been good! — sbinore1

I knew we’d get something like this. I get the impulse here, but the timing truly could not be worse. We’re in Week 8, man. Firing a coordinator and replacing him with someone out-of-house this late in the season is crazy, regardless of who that someone is. And Josh McDaniels isn’t exactly an offensive guru. He advocated for drafting Tim Tebow in the first round during his tenure in Denver, which is only the second-worst decision the Broncos have ever made in a deal involving quarterbacks and draft picks, and Raiders had one of the worst scoring offenses in the NFL this season despite fielding multiple All-Pros at the skill positions. Any shine that accompanies McDaniels comes from his time “coaching” in New England, and even that looks kind of funny in the light since he didn’t so much call plays as he made suggestions to Tom Brady.

An Off-Ball Linebacker in the 1st Round? Are kidding me?! Well, we know all know that Bleacher Report’s “scout” Mark Holder is officially a moron. What’s next Mr. Holder, a Fullback in the 2nd Round? It’s almost 2024 and the Off-Ball linebacker is not worthy of a 1st Round pick. It’s probably not worth a 2nd round pick either. — Carlos71

A bit harsh toward Mr. Holder, but the sentiment is correct: you should not draft an inside linebacker in the first round in the year 2023. Unless you have multiple first-round picks, and solid depth everywhere else, and a pressing need for the position.

Basically, you need to be the Detroit Lions. The Lions got four high-quality starters in the 2023 NFL Draft, one of whom is a middle linebacker they drafted in the first round. The Lions are currently 6-2; I cannot imagine they care about whether or not they over-drafted Jack Campbell.