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Diontae Johnson has been the Steelers most consistent offensive weapon since 2019

Imagine being a rookie receiver who was just drafted by the team with the franchise quarterback who led the NFL in passing yards the year before.

That was Diontae Johnson’s reality after the Steelers selected him out of Toledo in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Unfortunately for Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback who led the NFL in passing with 5129 yards in 2018, suffered a season-ending elbow injury six quarters into the 2019 regular season.

For a Pittsburgh offense that had already absorbed the departures of two Killer Bs prior to 2019–Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown–the loss of the Big Bee was just a bee too far.

Needless to say, the Steelers offense was severely compromised without Roethlisberger. Points and yards were hard to come by. Mason Rudolph was the quarterback for a bit. Then it was Devlin Hodges. Then it was back to Rudolph. Then it was Hodges once more. Pittsburgh averaged 18.1 points per game and finished 30th in yards.

But to his credit, Johnson turned in a pretty respectable rookie season, catching 59 passes for 680 yards and five touchdowns. One had to wonder just how effective Johnson could have been had he been on the receiving end of Roethlisberger’s passes.

We caught a glimpse of that in 2020 when Johnson reeled in 88 passes for 923 yards and five touchdowns from a returning Roethlisberger. It made sense that Johnson would take a leap with Roethlisberger as his quarterback. After all, we’re talking about a young receiver who compared quite favorably to Brown in many ways (at least on the field), and we all know what kind of connection Roethlisberger and Brown had over the years (at least on the field). The Steelers’ offense did rebound and averaged 26 points per game, but it was a bit of a mirage; defenses soon figured out that the way to stop Roethlisberger was to load the box and force him to make short, quick passes. In fact, he seemed as eager to make those kinds of throws as the defenses were to see him throw them.

Not surprisingly, the Steelers’ offense wasn’t nearly as effective over the second half of the 2020 season and was an absolute dog in 2021–Roethlisberger’s last year with the team. Pittsburgh averaged 20.2 points per game in 2021 and finished 23rd in offense. Believe it or not, Johnson, who caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns, had his one and only Pro Bowl season two years ago.

As for 2022, Johnson caught 86 passes for 882 yards and zero touchdowns. Yes, it was a joke that Johnson didn’t reach paydirt once, but maybe that’s because the Steelers offense, one that averaged 18.1 points per game and finished 23rd in yards with both Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett at quarterback, was the punchline.

Save for maybe the first six or seven games of 2020, the Steelers offense has been nothing but inept during Johnson’s entire career. Yet, despite the total incompetence, Johnson came into 2023 with 340 career receptions for 3,656 yards and 20 touchdowns.

Johnson has managed to produce under some very dire circumstances. Imagine what kind of numbers Johnson would have put up during the Killer Bs era. I’m sure he often imagines that himself.

Having said all of that, Johnson has been a frequent target of criticism from the fans since his rookie year. “All he does is drop the ball,” they say. Back when I did podcasts, someone actually said they wanted the Steelers to bench Johnson in favor of Ray-Ray McCloud.

Johnson has often been at the center of trade speculation and, more accurately, debate. “Wouldn’t it be nice if Pittsburgh could unload Johnson and his $18 million per year contract?” That’s right, fans never wanted Johnson to sign a new deal that would have paid him a salary befitting a number one receiver. Unfortunately for those fans, Johnson agreed to such a deal prior to the 2022 campaign, the one where he failed to score a single touchdown the entire year.

“All he does is run backward.” I call him “Diontae Dropson.”

I call Johnson resilient. Seriously, to be able to produce and even flourish at times in the clown show that has been the Steelers’ offense since 2019? That says a lot about him and his talents. Just ask James Washington and even JuJu Smith-Schuster how easy it was to find success in the post-Killer Bs heyday.

Johnson has been out with a hamstring injury since Week 1. Maybe he’ll play against the Rams on Sunday, and maybe he’ll get open a lot. In fact, I know he’ll get open a lot because his suburb route-running skills make him one of the best in the NFL at it.

You can continue to wish for the departure of Johson, and you can continue to call him silly nicknames, but you have to ask yourself this question: How many degrees removed from Antonio Brown’s skill level do you want the Steelers’ best receivers to be?

There’s a huge gap between receivers like Brown and receivers like Ryan Switzer, Washington and even Smith-Schuster.

Johnson may not be Antonio Brown, but he’s produced like a lower-tier number-one receiver his entire career, and he’s done so in an offense that hasn’t been able to find a way to produce on a consistent level for going on five years now.

The sooner Diontae Johnson gets back into the lineup for the Steelers’ anemic offense, the better.

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