Steelers' Diontae Johnson moves past the drops to become an elite receiver

PITTSBURGH -- It was right there.

A perfectly placed throw from Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to Diontae Johnson’s outstretched hands as he crossed into the end zone in front of Baltimore Ravens cornerback Anthony Averett.

It should’ve been a touchdown, the spark the Steelers needed Sunday after a half of stagnant offense.

But the ball glanced off Johnson’s fingertips as Averett dove at his ankles and bounced to the turf as Johnson landed face first in the yellow G of the Pittsburgh painted in the Heinz Field end zone. Instead of tying the Ravens with a minute until halftime, the Steelers (6-5-1) had to settle for a field goal after Johnson's first drop of the season.

It was the kind of miscue that would’ve buried Johnson a year ago. An error that could have snowballed and wrecked his confidence.

Instead, Johnson responded with not one, but two second-half touchdowns in the Steelers’ comeback 20-19 win, cementing Johnson’s status as a No. 1 wide receiver and keeping the Steelers’ playoff hopes alive.

“He’s a special talent,” Roethlisberger said while talking about Johnson’s second score, a 5-yard, game-winning touchdown. “And I think, to me, the bigger thing is the touchdown that would’ve been an amazing catch earlier, the one that he didn’t catch. He doesn’t go into the tank. He comes back and just makes plays and keeps going.

“That spoke volumes about who he is and his growth and maturity in such a young football career that he was able to bounce back and just make plays for us.”

A year ago, the 2019 third-round pick was benched for most of the first half of the Steelers’ Dec. 14 game against the Buffalo Bills after two first-quarter drops. He finished the season with 12 drops -- four more than any other player in 2020 and twice as many as the next closest Steelers' pass-catcher.

Entering Thursday night’s matchup against the Minnesota Vikings (8:20 p.m. ET, Fox/NFL Network), Johnson has one drop. He's one of 12 players with at least 100 targets, and he's tied with the Bills' Stefon Diggs and Packers' Davante Adams for the fewest drops among those 12 players. With his sure hands, Johnson leads the Steelers with 914 yards and six touchdowns.

“He’s definitely a No. 1,” said Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who’s been on the injured reserve since Oct. 10. “He’s playing like a No. 1. That’s Ben’s go-to guy. I love to see it. I love to see him score. I love to see him do his little dance. I love to see us win.”

Johnson wasn’t playing in the Steelers’ Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals because of a knee injury, but he was still on the field over an hour before kickoff.

Equipment assistant Lou Balde stood about five yards diagonally behind Johnson.

As Johnson glanced back at Balde, the Steelers assistant tossed the wide receiver a football over his right shoulder, twisting it in his hands on the release to add a little spin. Johnson made the catch, then flicked the ball back to him. The pair worked on the drill over and over before moving on to another.

Balde and Johnson have been putting in extra time together since training camp, Balde is often the mastermind behind drills to help Johnson work on his catches and hand-eye coordination.

“We just got together and said we’re going to try and get some extra work in,” Johnson said. “He comes up with the drills half the time. … I believe in him that he’s helping me and progressing my game at the same time. That’s been showing.”

Even before he returned for his third NFL training camp, Johnson, 25, was putting in extra work at his Florida home. He bought a tennis ball machine for his house in the offseason and started catching tennis balls to improve his hand-eye coordination.

“Just trying to catch the ball at different angles,” Johnson said. “The ball isn’t going to come perfect to you every time. You catch the tennis ball, it’s a smaller surface, so you focus more on a tennis ball. Once I get the football going, it comes easy.”

The tennis ball machine stayed in Florida when he came back to Pittsburgh, but Balde throws him tennis balls before, during and after practice and before games. Other players are taking note.

“He actually inspired me to do extra work after practice,” safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “He catches probably 100 extra passes and then he catches with the tennis balls. I started doing the same thing. I was struggling catching earlier this year. I feel like he’s helped me tremendously, too, and he challenged me to take that extra step for sure.”

Soft-spoken, Johnson isn’t a vocal leader but after Tuesday’s practice, a small group of Johnson’s teammates, including wide receivers Chase Claypool and Cody White, stayed late to catch extra passes.

“I’m just going to let my work do the talking, and whoever decides to follow me, then that’s how it’s going to be,” Johnson said. “I’m going to keep leading by example, making plays down the field, doing extra drills, whoever wants to come out there and do extra work with me, let’s be great together.”

At the beginning of each week, Johnson takes a printed scouting report of the next opponent’s secondary and tapes it up in his locker. It was another suggestion from Balde.

“I like to see who I’m going up against, who they got,” Johnson said. “Who travels [when a cornerback stays on one receiver], they play right or left, certain stuff like that. I like to know who the backups are, as well. So just in case one of them goes down, I’ll know what to expect.”

As the Steelers’ top receiver, Johnson is attracting the attention of the league’s top corners.

Before the Ravens game, he studied Marlon Humphrey’s tendencies, and it paid off when he shook the cornerback with the help of tight end Pat Freiermuth, a crisp route and a quick change of direction to free him up for the game-winning touchdown.

“I saw that there were no safeties,” Johnson said Sunday. “It was zero coverage. They do that a lot. So, I knew a lot of times we would run a pick route or something short. In that situation, Marlon likes to go over the top. So, we got a little traffic and I was able to come open because of that.”

Johnson caught 7 of 8 targets in the second half of the win over the Ravens for 91 yards after catching just 1 of 3 in the first half. And, Johnson averaged 4.3 yards of separation in the second half, a significant increase from 1.4 yards in the first.

“Special,” Roethlisberger said, describing Johnson’s ability to get out of breaks. “It’s quick. The second touchdown, he runs his route and puts his foot in the ground, and I don’t know too many people that can stop that. And that’s why we put the play in. We put plays in for him to do those kinds of things, and the best way to stop him is to hold him.”

On his first score Sunday night, a 29-yard touchdown reception, Johnson had 10.0 yards of separation as the ball arrived -- the most on a Roethlisberger touchdown this season, according to Next Gen Stats.

Johnson averages 3.09 yards of separation, good for sixth among the 12 receivers with at least 100 targets.

With his speed and improved hands, Johnson is playing his way into either a second contract, rare for a Steelers wide receiver, or a big payday when he hits free agency in 2023. And with the drops behind him, he's the weapon the Steelers need to make a playoff push.

“He's becoming a veteran guy, and so it's reasonable to expect him to get better physically, him to get better intellectually in terms of knowing and understanding the game and utilizing that knowledge for his good,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “And also, just being able to withstand the ups and downs that is a game or a series or a season. We're appreciative of his growth and development, but I don't think anyone's surprised by it. As a matter of fact, we expected it and we needed it.”