The 2022 season has not gone the way that standout Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson was hoping it would go, especially after signing a lucrative two-year contract extension in training camp.
Through 10 games, Johnson has struggled to produce at his typical high level, having hauled in just 51 passes for 456 yards on the season. He has yet to find the end zone either, which is causing some frustrations for the fourth-year receiver who has been one of the top 10-15 receivers in football each of the last two seasons prior to 2022.
While he’s not frustrated with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett, he is rather frustrated with the way defenses are covering him and the way the offense is struggling to get him looks against certain coverages. No, he’s not turning into a diva, but he is handling some of the questions from the media rather well.
So, it was to see Johnson’s thousand-watt smile crease his face Thursday following practice while speaking with reporters when he was asked about ESPN’s recent Open Rate metric, which is by the likelihood a receiver would make a catch if thrown to. In that metric, Johnson is the highest-graded receiver in football when it comes to his open rate.
“For every route run, Open Score assesses the likelihood a receiver would be able to complete a catch, conditional on if he were targeted. The assessment takes place a moment before pass release (0.2 seconds prior), because defenders read the shoulders of the quarterback at release and break on the targeted receiver,” according to ESPN’s explanation of the metric.
Johnson has an open rate of 90, which is tied with Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett for the highest in the league. His other metrics don’t measure as highly, as his catch rate is just 54, which ranks 41st in the league, while his yards after catch rate of 35 is 83rd in the NFL. Averaging all those numbers, Johnson grades out to an overall rate of 70, which is tied with Amari Cooper for the 13th best in the NFL.
Knowing that, it’s a bit frustrating to see the lack of production from the standout receiver. He’s kept his head down and worked, but when asked about the ESPN metric, he couldn’t help but smile, taking it as a compliment to the skillset he provides overall for the Steelers.
“I seen it, I was excited. I didn’t really know they did stuff like that, but I take that as a compliment,” Johnson stated to reporters, according to video via Steelers.com. “Just my work shows that I work hard and what I do good at ’em, I’m putting it on film consistently. It’s really no secret. It’s just working and believing in yourself. All that comes from within.
“So I’m real big on confidence and every time I step to the line, I always got a gameplan. If they stop that one, I got another counter move for it. So I’m all for it, you know what I’m saying?” Johnson added. “So when it comes to that, I’m always ready and willing to work and willing to get better each and every day.”
Coming out of college, Johnson was viewed as a high-level route runner. That’s translated to the NFL game, where he’s been able to consistently get open, show his number to his quarterback and make plays with the football. Other cornerbacks around the league have praised him for his route running and crediting him for how difficult he is to stick with.
That’s no secret regarding Johnson’s game. That’s why it’s so surprising to see the lack of targets and overall production this season for the veteran receiver.
Granted, the Steelers underwent significant changes under center this season with Mitch Trubisky and now Pickett taking over for Ben Roethlisberger, who heavily targeted Johnson each of the last two seasons before retiring.
Still, that metric plays into the reasoning behind why defenses are double covering Johnson and aiming to negate him from the Steelers’ gameplan each and every week. So far, it’s working.
It’s a bit frustrating to Johnson, but he’s got the right approach not complaining about it, putting his head down and continuing to work. At some point, with the emergence of George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth opposite him, defenses will have to adjust and get back to single covering Johnson.
That will allow the NFL’s most open receiver to thrive once again.