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Steelers Film Room: Diontae Johnson not alone in early miscues

Another game of missed early opportunities...

Pittsburgh Steelers Diontae Johnson reacts after an overthrown pass by Kenny Pickett during the first half against the Jacksonville Jaguars at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA on October 29, 2023. Michael Longo/For USA Today Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

The TV picture of an NFL game only tells a small part of the story. With some enhanced views from the All-22 and end zone camera angles, we can see things that the broadcast didn’t show. Let’s take a look at a few early plays from Sunday’s 20-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Can Kenny Pickett and these receivers make a connection, please?

It’s the very first play of the game. The Steelers have George Pickens at the bottom of the screen and three receivers at the top. This is a formation the Steelers like to use to get Pickens isolated one-on-one. On the three-receiver side, Diontae Johnson is closest to the offensive line, followed by Allen Robinson, and furthest out is Connor Heyward.

On this play, Pickens attracts the attention of one deep safety long enough to open up the middle of the field for Johnson. At the same time, Robinson runs alongside Johnson for the first 10-12 yards at the other deep safety to briefly occupy his attention. Johnson breaks in toward the wide-open middle. The Jaguars rush four with a delayed fifth blitzer. The offensive line is up to the task. It looks as if everything went just how a coach would draw it up. Unfortunately, the result was an incompletion.

From the end zone view, we get a good look at Johnson jumping and fully extending to adjust to the ball’s flight. It goes right through his hands. How? Watching Johnson’s hands during this play, they are down at his left hip. The pass, however, doesn’t lead him in the direction he is running, and as he jumps for it he has to get his hands across his body from his right hip to out over his right shoulder. It’s easy to say “So what? It still hit him in the hands!”

This next view is a slowed-down and blown-up edit of the TV broadcast replay. Does the pass actually hit him in the hands? That might depend on what your definition of a hand is. Johnson gets nine fingers on the ball, but just above the knuckles. For all the effort of jumping and extending, that’s the best he can do. In addition, the ball has already passed over his head and he is left trying to catch the back half of the football—notice how his left index finger only makes contact with the rear tip of the ball. Call it a drop if you want, but a better pass would’ve made this play much easier.

On to the second play of the game, the Jaguars rush only four and Chuks Okorafor gets pushed into Kenny Pickett’s lap for a quick sack. Pickett is looking to his right at Johnson’s side of the field again. As Johnson reaches the 30-yard line, he is contacted by the Jaguars defensive back, taking away the route. Johnson will see plenty of this throughout the game as the Jaguars seem very aware of the 5-yard area where it is legal to initiate contact. Also of note is that Pickens settles into an open spot in the zone defense to the bottom of the screen at the 40-yard line. Had Pickett been given enough time to progress through his reads, there was an opportunity for an easy 15 yards.

After the sack, it is now third-and-15. Despite six blockers against just four pass rushers, Pickett senses pressure and escapes to his right (not to his left as is his tendency). He has three receivers to this side of the field. Connor Heyward ran up the middle to the 35-yard line and turned to see Pickett scrambling and headed toward the sideline. Calvin Austin had run a deep out and once he reached the sideline he headed back towards Pickett. Johnson had run a route up the numbers to the 35 where he also turned and saw Pickett rolling in his direction. Pickett is in no immediate danger and Johnson looks to take his route deeper. The pass is more inside than where Johnson is heading. He stops, does a 180, jumps, and has the helmet of the defensive back in his chest as he tries to bring down the catch. Incomplete.

Another view of the play shows big potential. Johnson comes into this clip on the numbers at the 30-yard line. At the 35 he turns and sees Pickett on the run. By the time Johnson has one foot on the 40, he is deeper than all 11 Jaguars defenders. There is a huge margin for error on any throw past midfield. Instead, Austin’s defender has time to get to Johnson and make a play. Perhaps we should be thankful that this didn’t turn into an 80-yard play as Okorafor was called for a holding penalty that would have negated it and enraged Steeler fans everywhere.

The Steelers’ second drive started with two ineffective runs from Najee Harris, which led to this third-and-six from the 29. On TV, it looked as if Pickett and Johnson weren’t on the same page, resulting in a near interception. From the All-22 film angle, we can see what happened — once again, the Jaguars use early contact to disrupt Johnson. Around the 33-yard line, Johnson is knocked off his route and to the ground.

The third Steelers drive started with an eight-yard completion to Johnson, followed by a Jaylen Warren run for no gain. On this third-and-two, the Steelers have Johnson to the top side with three receivers in a bunch to the bottom. Pickens will come out of the bunch running up the hash marks. At the 36, he gives a little move to the inside before breaking outside. The defensive back’s hesitation leaves Pickens open for any outside throw as there is no deep safety help on this side of the field. At the end of this clip, you can see a deep safety at the other hash marks near the Jaguar 38-yard line.

By the time Pickens is at the 45, he is open by two yards and increasing that separation. If Pickens gets the ball early enough to avoid the sideline, that safety across the field is the only obstacle between him and a 67-yard touchdown. The throw from Pickett allows the defender to make up that 2-yard gap and knock the pass away.

There have been questions regarding Pickens’ route running. Here is a look at the move that got him open. He is off-screen at the snap but will come down the hash marks, take one step inside the hash, and break to the outside. The Jaguar defender is almost flat-footed with his hesitation and Pickens has him beat.

It would be much easier to fix the Steeler offense if there was just one problem. The first three drives Sunday resulted in three-and-outs. When the pass plays being called yielded wide-open receivers, the letdown came from dropped passes, off-target passes, poor blocking, and not being able to handle physical defensive backs. This is two weeks in a row where better on-field execution could’ve put early points on the board.