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Was Kenny Pickett the problem with Diontae Johnson’s 2022 production?

The Rookie quarterback’s stats throwing to the Steelers #1 receiver were not good.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Diontae Johnson is the highest paid receiver in per-season money in Pittsburgh Steeler history, and the highest paid player on the Steelers offense. Kenny Pickett is the Steelers highest drafted offensive player since Maurkice Pouncey in 2010. For the Steelers offense to succeed, the two players they have invested the most in need to work well together and produce results.

They didn’t do that in 2022.

Diontae Johnson had the worst season of his 4-year career in 2022, the second most targets, 3rd highest yards, but worst yards per reception, catch percentage, yards per catch and not only the fewest touchdowns, he didn’t even score a touchdown in 2022.

That is clearly a bad season for Diontae Johnson, but we are going to look deeper, and the story gets interesting.

A few things have held true for Diontae Johnson in his NFL career so far. First, his route running is elite and creates separation that drives him being targeted a lot. Johnson has led the Steelers in targets in all four of his seasons with the team. Second his catch rate is consistently low for his average depth of target. Passes farther down field tend to have lower catch rates, shorter passes have higher catch rates. Diontae Johnson has a consistently lower average depth of target, but also has a consistently lower catch rate. Third, Diontae Johnson doesn’t generate a lot of yards after the catch.

When you combine those factors, you get a receiver with lots of volume because of the targets he earns by getting open, but whose yards and touchdowns rank substantially lower than his targets. In 2022, that gap was bigger than ever.

Compare Johnson’s 2021 and 2022 seasons by where he ranked among NFL receivers, and I’m going to leave out touchdowns because we all know zero is lower than 8, we don’t need to analyze that.

Targets: 3rd
Receptions: 5th
Yards: 10th
Yards per target: 99th (out of 152 qualifying receivers)

Targets: 7th
Receptions: 15th
Yards: 29th
Yards per target: 117th (out of 139 qualifying receivers)

Johnson’s targets dropped, but look at the other rankings, Johnson’s production plummeted. You might think that’s just the entire offense being worse, so next let’s look at his stats as a percentage of team passing.

Targets: 25.4%
Receptions: 25.2%
Yards: 28.9%
Yards per Target: 111.3%

Targets: 25.7%
Receptions: 23.6%
Yards: 24.1%
Yards per target: 96.7%

In 2021 Johnson was targeted on 1 of every 4 passes thrown. He caught them at a roughly team average rate, gaining roughly 11% more yards than the average Steeler. Those aren’t great numbers when you consider the average Steeler receiver includes a lot of passes to running backs and tight ends. But they are better than in 2022, when Johnson’s share of receptions is significantly lower than his target rate. The drop off from 2021 to 2022 accounts for about 7 receptions less than he would have had at his 2021 percentage of receptions. That naturally is the same difference the drop in Johnson’s catch rate from 2021 to 2022 shows.

That catch rate drops, but so does Diontae Johnson’s yards per reception compared to team average, from 114.7% in 2021, to 102.0%.

Perhaps the best way to show all this is by taking the Steelers team stats from 2022 and showing what Diontae Johnson’s numbers would look like if his percentages of team production were the same in 2022 as they were in 2021:

Here’s Diontae Johnson’s actual 2022:

Targets: 147
Receptions: 86
Yards: 882
TDs: 0

And here’s what you get if he produced at his 2021 percentage of team offense:

Targets: 145
Receptions: 92
Yards: 1035
TDs: 4

The passing game itself did get worse, but as it did it relied more on Diontae Johnson than in 2021, and Johnson did less with it, even compared to his teammates playing in the same offense.

So far we see that Diontae Johnson had a worse 2022 than 2021, even adjusting for overall decline in the passing game caused largely by Ben Roethlisberger retiring. Next we’re going to look at the quarterbacks that threw him the ball.

Those are the season totals on passes targeting Diontae Johnson. Both Johnson and Trubisky threw 3 interceptions in Johnson’s direction, but beyond the interceptions, look at Trubisky’s numbers compared to Kenny Pickett. A much higher completion percentage and yards per target, even with a slightly higher yards per reception from Pickett. The next question I expect is how Pickett and Johnson performed in the second half of the season, when Pickett drastically cut back on interceptions and played much better overall.

Those are the stats from Week 9 on, and you can see Pickett improves his passing to Diontae Johnson, but still only up to a 6.2 yards per target and 70.5 passer rating, while in the two games Trubisky and Johnson played together after the bye they were much more effective. Interestingly Pickett in the second half of the season threw one fewer time to Johnson than Trubisky did all season, and you can see that outside of interceptions, Trubisky to Johnson was more effective.

That’s not true of any of the other main receivers on the Steelers except for Chase Claypool, whom the Steelers traded mis-season.

Interestingly, the best quarterback connection with Diontae Johnson over his career was on the Steelers roster in 2022. Here’s the numbers for throwing to Diontae Johnson over his entire career:

Obviously the highest total numbers all come from Ben Roethlisberger, but the highest passer rating and yards per target belong to Mason Rudolph. Most of those throws come from 2019, and you might be tempted to think that Johnson was at his best in 2019, but if you take away 2019 stats, Rudolph (albeit with a smaller sample size of two games) still leads all passers throwing to Diontae Johnson in passer rating and yards per target.

Interestingly the highest completion percentage throwing to Diontae Johnson comes from Mitch Trubisky, while the worst numbers across the board go to Kenny Pickett, with the lowest completion percentage, yards per target and passer rating when targeting Diontae Johnson. His passer rating is less than half of Mason Rudolph’s when throwing to Johnson.

Again, Pickett was better throwing to George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth by a large margin, so it’s hard to just say Pickett was a worse quarterback, but it is clear that Diontae Johnson and Kenny Pickett were not good together in Pickett’s rookie season.

In fact, if you take Trubisky and Johnson’s production and project that over the Steelers 2022 passing totals, you get 1161 yards, while an entire season producing yards at the rate he and Pickett produced at leads to 737 yards. Lastly, at the rate Mason Rudolph and Diontae Johnson have produced so far, if you took their yards per target and Johnson’s 147 targets in 2022, you get 1279 yards.

None of the above numbers are a prediction of what would have happened, but it does a good job of showing the incredible difference in production Diontae Johnson has had with the different quarterbacks that were on the 2022 Steelers roster.

The Steelers have to hope that the struggles in the Pickett -> Johnson connection are due to Pickett’s rookie status and unfamiliarity and will improve substantially in 2023. If they don’t it will not be good for the Steelers offense.