It’s time to stop underrating Steelers’ WR Diontae Johnson

After another two solid outings, Diontae Johnson is showing why he's among the best second-year wide receivers, despite being continuously underrated.

The NFL is full of talented second-year receivers who get a lot of attention and praise. One guy who is still underrated and doesn’t get the respect he deserves is Steelers’ WR, Diontae Johnson. It’s time to stop underrating the Steelers’ young talent and give him the recognition he deserves.

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Johnson is underrated in part because of the offense around him in 2019

My question is why is Johnson being underrated? Is it because he lacks the physique of D.K. Metcalf? Is it because he wasn’t on a Super Bowl team like Deebo Samuel? Or maybe it’s because he isn’t the unquestioned No. 1 target in Pittsburgh’s offense like Terry McLaurin in Washington. Though all of those may be true, Johnson still had more receptions than all of them in 2019 with some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL.

Speaking of the offensive woes for the Steelers in 2019, let’s talk about that. After Ben Roethlisberger went down with the infamous elbow injury in Week 2, the offense failed to find a consistent groove. JuJu Smith-Schuster missed four games and saw his production take a massive step back, reeling in just 42 receptions compared to the team-leading 111 catches in 2018.

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James Conner also dealt with injuries that held him out of six games, but even with Conner, the Steelers struggled on the ground, ranking 29th in the NFL among rushing. Additionally, the Steelers were brutal through the air, finishing 31st in passing offense, making for a bad picture all around.

Amidst all of the chaos, the then-rookie from Toledo shined. Johnson’s 59 receptions led the team and all NFL rookies, while also earning All-Pro honors as a return man.

How has Diontae Johnson done through the first two games in 2020?

Fast forward to 2020, and Johnson is yet again playing a vital role in the team’s quick 2-0 start. But much like he did last season, he is doing it quietly. A lot of attention has been paid to the rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool or the aforementioned Smith-Schuster, who is looking to rebound from his disappointing 2019 season.

While Johnson started off slow in Week 1 against the Giants with a muffed punt and a drop, he rebounded to tie for the team lead in catches in the Steelers 26-16 win. He also led the Steelers in targets, as Ben Roethlisberger looked his way 10 times. In Week 2, Johnson led the team in receptions, yards, and recorded his first touchdown of the season in the fourth quarter, which put the Steelers up by double digits.

What does Diontae Johnson do so effectively?

It wasn’t just that he was getting open, but what he did when he had the ball in his hands. His cuts were sharp, he was elusive and made plays when the opportunity presented itself. He also had a punt return touchdown that was called back due to an illegal block in the back in which he made several Broncos miss on his way to the end zone. If you watch that play alongside the punt return touchdown he had in Arizona last season, the fluidity in his motions and his route to the end zone were nearly identical.

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As great as that play was, the punt return following a fourth-quarter safety was even better. Even though he didn’t return it for a touchdown, Johnson was weaving from midfield to the sideline, ducking defenders as he made his way back toward midfield, made more tacklers miss before running out of bounds.

In Pittsburgh’s first two games, Johnson leads the Steelers in receptions and yards. While he is not the sole focal target in the explosive offense, he is arguably the most important. When everything fell apart in 2019, Johnson gave the offense life and helped keep them in the race for a wildcard spot. His ability to stop and shift at will, combined with his route running ability and knack for finding open spaces in the defense helps him to reel in passes. His game-breaking return ability separates him from being just another receiver in the league. If the Steelers are a machine, then Diontae Johnson is premium gas.

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