• Travis Steffen

Diontae Johnson has quickly become a top target for Ben Roethlisberger


Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson has become a top target for Ben Roethlisberger. What has led to his success early in 2020?


The Pittsburgh Steelers came into the 2020 season with several questions on offense as Ben Roethlisberger returned from injury. Not only were there questions about what Big Ben would look like following the injury and given his age, but questions around the playmakers he had at his disposal as well.


JuJu Smith-Schuster looked to take over as the primary threat with the departure of Antonio Brown, but injuries played a role in his lackluster 2019 season.


The two receivers that saw the most production for Pittsburgh in 2019 were second-year receiver James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson. While Washington led the Steelers in receiving yards with 735, Johnson led the team in targets and touchdowns. Expecting to build upon his rookie performance, there were questions regarding how much time and production Johnson would get in the offense.


Playing over 80 percent of the offensive snaps through the first two weeks shows that the Steelers want to get Johnson more involved in 2020. Smith-Schuster has remained the primary slot weapon, leaving Johnson to fill Brown’s role on the boundary.

Despite not having much time working with Big Ben so far in his early career, Johnson was targeted more than any other receiver through those first two games. He led the offense with 32 percent in target share, which ranked 4th in the NFL. The only receiver to have more targets than Johnson through the first two weeks was Arizona Cardinals wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins.


The Steelers are looking to make Johnson one of their primary targets on offense. With his volume of production through those two games, the fantasy football world has taken notice. So what have we seen from the second-year wide receiver so far in 2020, and what should we expect going forward from him when he returns from concussion protocol?


How has Diontae Johnson become a target hog in Pittsburgh?


Standing at 5-10, 183 pounds, Johnson is not your prototypical build at the wide receiver position. Adding the fact that he doesn’t possess burner top-end speed only adds to his limitations. To overcome these obstacles, Johnson wins with a variety of release packages, savvy route running and manipulation, and lateral agility after the catch.

Without catching many passes from Big Ben during his rookie season or having a usual offseason program to get reps with his quarterback, Roethlisberger trusted his young wideout early. During the first game of the season, Johnson was targeted ten times against the Giants. Immediately off of play-action, Roethlisberger throws this back-shoulder pass to Johnson. Adjusting quickly to the pass, Johnson doesn’t give Corey Ballentine any opportunity to react to the throw and avoids contact to create additional yards after the catch.


Ballentine struggled for most of the game to keep up with Johnson. His variety of release packages and manipulation at the top of routes gave the young cornerback a tough time.

In the clip above, it’s clear that Ballentine wasn’t expecting a speed release to the outside. Knocking away Ballentine’s hands as he works into his stem, Johnson maintains separation before aggressively dropping his hips and turning out of his break at the top of this comeback route for an easy catch.

Throughout his first two games, Diontae Johnson has had tremendous success with curl routes. Most of that has been against off-man coverages like this one against the Denver Broncos. He consistently attacks the cushion of defenders, aggressively forcing them on their heels. Cornerback Bryce Callahan is backpedaling as fast as he can to maintain that cushion and cannot stop and come back downhill to contest the catch.


It was a great catch by Johnson on that curl route but as he stated in a recent press conference, he and Roethlisberger are still working on their timing and where he is expected to be when the ball is thrown.


Most of his production has come from the short to intermediate areas of the field. Mostly driving across the middle of the field, curl routes and out routes have been where he gets the most of his targets. Against Denver, Johnson thrived against off-man coverages and deeper zones with curls and out routes. With his ability to attack cushions and sell vertically, he provides big openings for his quarterback.

Targeting Johnson in these areas also allows him to make something happen in the open field with the ball in his hands. Creating yards after the catch is somewhere that he has thrived with his stop-start ability early in his career. In the clip above, he runs a simple route out into the flat and shows impressive adjustment to snatch the ball. What’s more impressive is his ability to juke the closing defender immediately after making the catch that he had to adjust for initially. Plays like this will earn him more opportunities


Targets deeper downfield has been harder to come by early in his career. His average depth of target in the first two weeks was 6.3 yards with an average of 5.3 yards of additional yards after the catch. However, his one touchdown in 2020 came 28 yards downfield.

Johnson does an excellent job on this play of forcing the cornerback further outside before adjusting his route vertically. With one of the safeties dropping down to help in the middle, intermediate area of the field, it leaves a single high safety over the top. The safety moves towards the opposite sideline, allowing Johnson to come wide open in the end zone over the deep middle as he breaks inside.


There are still areas that will need further development for Johnson as the season progresses for him to become a downfield threat consistently. Lacking size and top-end speed, he has struggled on fade routes releasing to the outside against physical corners.

Cornerbacks have had success getting their hands on him and disrupting the timing of his routes when pushing down the sideline when pressing at the line of scrimmage. On this particular play, his route’s timing was unable to come open, and he looks back to the quarterback before he has gained separation, only further slowing him down. Likely knowing that the ball should be thrown at that moment, but he wasn’t able to gain separation quickly enough.


Another issue that has hurt Johnson and was a concern coming out of college is his concentration drops. In both games, he had wide-open targets crossing over the middle. Additionally, he has fumbled the ball twice in the first two games. The first punt return attempt against the Giants, and the second on the first play of the game against the Broncos on a sweep. Some of that could be chemistry with Big Ben in the backfield, but still a concern.


The Steelers will continue to put Diontae Johnson in a position to thrive


When it comes to fantasy football, Diontae Johnson is a player you want on your team. The overall target share alone is enough to warrant starting him as a flex option at the least. It makes up for the concentration drops that will come inevitably. The chemistry between Johnson and Roethlisberger as the season progresses will only make him an even bigger weapon in the offense. Without that chemistry, he has seen double-digit targets in his two full games this season.


The Steelers have been creative in utilizing Johnson early in the season between favorable matchups and alignments. Most of his time against the Giants, he was lined up on the left boundary to go against Ballentine, and against the Broncos, Johnson saw more than double the snaps out of stacked and bunch formations to provide clean releases.


With an additional week to clear concussion protocols due to the game against the Tennessee Titans being postponed, Johnson should return in Week 5 with a massive target load. The next opponent will be hosting the Philadelphia Eagles who have struggled with injuries and should provide some favorable matchups for Johnson. He’s quickly becoming Big Ben’s favorite target, even over Smith-Schuster so far in 2020.


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