Sometimes when two talented players come together, things do not gel perfectly right away. Now, add circumstances that cut out most of the offseason program. Then, throw in the fact that one of those players missed a lot of what training camp there was with an injury, and it is easy to see why things might get off to a slow start. The Pittsburgh Steelers have a situation just like this right now between Ben Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson.
Johnson leads the Steelers in targets, but the connection between him and his quarterback has not been great thus far. Having had a disrupted offseason, including Johnson missing two weeks with injury, it is no surprise things have started slowly. Still, the flashes of their connection these first two weeks have shown great potential.
Early season struggles fall below expectations
Roethlisberger specifically mentioned Sunday after the win over the Broncos that he needs to “trust” his receivers and said it was mostly a “timing” issue between him and Johnson. Roethlisberger had barely any time to develop a rapport with Johnson last season after a season-ending elbow injury, and this offseason was much of the same story. Roethlisberger has targeted Johnson 23 times in the first two weeks, which leads the Steelers and is second in the NFL. It is clear that he is trying to develop some chemistry with Johnson, but the film shows a work in progress as the duo left too many yards on the field.
This was the big miss from the game against the Giants. Everything about this play says it should go to Johnson on the sail concept. The Giants show a two-high shell pre-snap, and nothing happens post-snap to change that picture from a favorable one. They are running Cover 2 man, and Sail is a notorious beater of that exact coverage. Roethlisberger seemingly looks off Johnson and comes back to him too late. Johnson can not get his feet in bounds, and it is incomplete. This is a trust and timing issue for Roethlisberger. These two, in Week 1, did not feel comfortable with each other.
The Week 2 matchup showcased some growing chemistry, but yet again, a miss from Roethlisberger and Johnson comes from their lack of trust. This one, however, was far more consequential. The pre-snap yo-yo motion identifies that it is zone coverage. The Broncos are blatantly showing that this is quarters coverage. While Michael Ojemudia has slight outside leverage on Johnson, who is running a deep out route, that is Roethlisberger’s primary read.
Johnson effectively stems his route inside and makes a smooth cut to get enough separation. Roethlisberger, however, does not get the ball out when Johnson is heading out of his break. As such, he has to abandon Johnson and extend the play, causing him to throw an interception.
Johnson’s negatives, in part, have been due to some drops. Whether that is a factor in gaining Roethlisberger’s trust is yet to be seen. Still, from this play, it is clear that Roethlisberger is learning what Johnson’s style is as a receiver anyway. He does not anticipate Johnson being that quick and, as such, launches it behind him as he is trying to anticipate this throw. Roethlisberger has to feel out Johnson’s athletic traits. In this example, Johnson can not haul the pass in, and the Steelers pass up an easy first down. The connection between the two is not quite clicking right now.
The flashes have been amazing
Despite those struggles, there have been some great flashes that showcase what this connection can be once they start to get into a groove. Roethlisberger’s rapport with receivers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and in the past, Antonio Brown, has been great. He and Johnson just need time to gel.
The big touchdown in the fourth quarter on Sunday is an excellent example of where this connection can go if they get on the same page. Roethlisberger has to take the ball down and scramble outside the pocket to extend the play out of structure. In any case, Johnson gets open with a smooth route. However, he helps his quarterback out in the scramble drill, gets him an open target, and then bails him out by making a fantastic adjustment on the football in the end zone. The fact that Roethlisberger uncorked this ball to Johnson showcases there is a want to flesh out this connection going forward.
One of the best parts about the Roethlisberger and Brown connection was their effortless ability to win on the back-shoulder throws. These windows were easy yards for one of the best duos in the game. Johnson and Roethlisberger are beginning to develop that chemistry of where to expect the ball, and how Johnson’s release opens up this window. It is something that these two will likely work on to make even better throughout the season.
It will just take some time for Johnson and Roethlisberger to get fully on the same page
Roethlisberger has seemingly force-fed Johnson the first two weeks of the season. That alone says that he realizes what a talent Johnson is on film. There is no doubt that Johnson is one of the shiftiest receivers in the league and a superb route runner to top it off. Roethlisberger recognizes that.
These great duos need time to mesh their styles together. Johnson is unlike any receiver Roethlisberger has ever had in his career. That is true for any new wide receiver a quarterback gets. However, as we can see with Chase Claypool, a full offseason gives Roethlisberger enough time to trust and feel out any given receiver. That is not true for Johnson, who missed time with that calf injury.
These are two high-level players in this league. Johnson is on his way to stardom, and Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer. Whenever players of this talent develop a connection, defenses pray they can just slow it down. Despite the rocky start, they will most likely figure it out, and this connection has the chance to be one of the best in the NFL.