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Expect Steelers players’ touchdown production to improve in 2023

Diontae Johnson’s goose egg should go away easily this year.

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

As the Steelers rounded into a refined form toward the end of the 2022 season, a particularly enjoyable element was, surprisingly enough, the team’s offense.

From Week 9 onward, Pittsburgh ranked fifth in expected points added (EPA)/play and fourth in success rate, averaging 20.89 points per game. Those metrics came as marked improvement relative to the first half of the year, in which the Steelers ranked 28th in EPA/play, 26th in success rate and scored only 15 points per game, reaching the 20-point threshold three times in eight games.

Despite the uptick in offensive output and team scoring, though, a bit of a statistical fallacy emerged: the Steelers’ skill-position players did not see major improvements in terms of their own touchdown numbers.

After playing 17 games, Pittsburgh’s receiving touchdowns leader was George Pickens, with only four trips to the end zone. That was tied with six other teams for the lowest number of touchdowns by a receiving TDs leader in 2022.

The top storyline that emerged among Pittsburgh’s dismal receiving touchdown production was certainly Diontae Johnson.

Despite hauling in 86 catches for 882 yards, Johnson finished with zero touchdowns. Just how rare is that feat? Johnson became one of two players in NFL history to post 85+ catches and no scores in a season, joining James Wilder in 1984.

Moreover, since 2019, there have been 136 instances of a player ending a season with 850 or more receiving yards, but only two of those players — Johnson and Kyle Pitts in 2021 — have finished with one or fewer touchdowns. That’s good for 1.5% of situations in the last four seasons.

Johnson wasn’t the only Steeler to not see little to no translation in scoring output. Pat Freiermuth had the fewest receiving touchdowns (two) among tight ends to haul in 730 or more receiving yards.

Freiermuth also posted 63 catches a year ago. Since 2000, there have been 183 times a tight end has recorded 60+ receptions in a season, but only 20 have had two or fewer TDs at that level. That translates to 10.9%.

At running back, Najee Harris may have been a positive outlier relative to his teammates in black and gold by posting seven rushing touchdowns. Even that comes with a caveat, however.

Of the 15 players to reach 1,000 rushing yards last year, Harris had the fifth-fewest touchdowns. The second-year back was ahead of only Travis Etienne, Rhamondre Stevenson, Tyler Allgeier and Aaron Jones.

What’s worth noting, though, is that Harris had over 50 more carries than any of those RBs. In fact, in the last two years, Harris has posted 270+ carries and no more than seven ground TDs. He’s the first player accomplish that feat (if you can call it that) since Chris Johnson did so in 2012-13.

The collective moral of the story? The Steelers have had talented players at RB, WR and TE that have accumulated good numbers, but not regarding touchdowns. In some cases, the scoring rates were so scarce that they tied NFL history.

Yet, there should be expectations of better, more reflective touchdown production in 2023.

Inherently, touchdowns tend to be a very volatile metric that are based on a myriad of factors. Luck is certainly one of them; in Johnson’s instance, he got open in the end zone several times, but the ball was not successfully delivered to him, such as due to deflections at the line of scrimmage.

Another to consider is red zone production, i.e., how well a team translates trips inside the 20 to six. The Steelers ranked 22nd in football in that category in 2022, scoring touchdowns on only 51.92% of red zone appearances. As my colleague Geoffrey Benedict noted, that stemmed largely due to poor red zone passing.

With the team bolstering its offensive line and keeping its framework (head coach, play-caller and almost all weapons) around Kenny Pickett, the Steelers’ offense should take several steps up in 2023. Touchdown conversion rates should augment as a reflection of that.

Of course, some could argue that players like Harris, Johnson, Freiermuth and even Pickens might see their touchdown numbers decrease this year. After all, there will be more mouths to feed, with Pittsburgh trading for Allen Robinson and drafting Darnell Washington. Plus, young players like Calvin Austin III, Connor Heyward and Jaylen Warren will demand touches.

In key situations like inside the 10, though, offenses tend to distribute the ball to the players they trust the most. For the Steelers, that’s likely to remain Harris, Johnson, Freiermuth and Pickens, at least in the early portions of the season.

Additionally, recent history would suggest that such subpar touchdown figures should rebound this year. In the two prior seasons where he accumulated 85 or more catches, Johnson had no fewer than seven touchdowns. As a team, the Steelers haven’t had their receiving touchdown leader at six or fewer TDs in consecutive years since 2000-2001.

As Mike Tomlin and Pittsburgh’s coaching staff evaluate the 2022 campaign, the team will likely take pride in taking better care of the ball and being more efficient offensively as the year progressed; they may not put much stock into bad individual touchdown numbers across the board, aside from players poking fun at each other.

But, as the Steelers seek to elevate their entire offense in Pickett’s second year, though, an emphasis should be placed on scoring figures — something that should regress positively in 2023.