Sat, 04 Feb 2023

Pickett says Steelers have to get Johnson on the move

The Steelers
25 Nov 2022, 05:30 GMT+10

Dale Lolley

Diontae Johnson expressed frustration following the Steelers' 37-30 loss last Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals at Acrisure Stadium.

Johnson was targeted just five times in the game, catching four of those passes, but for only 21 yards as he got consistent extra attention from the Bengals.

"Any football player would be frustrated," Johnson said following the loss that dropped the Steelers to 3-7.

"But I have to just keep playing."

Johnson remains the Steelers' most targeted player with 86 through the team's first 10 games, 19 more than tight end Pat Freiermuth, who is second.

But after getting 144 and 169 targets in the previous two seasons, ranking among the league leaders, Johnson has gotten double digit targets in just one of the Steelers' past five games.

As a result, his productivity is down.

After catching 107 passes for 1,161 yards and eight touchdowns in 2021, Johnson has 51 receptions for 456 yards and has yet to score this season.

"He's a smart player. We'll be coming off the field and he'll be, 'They're over the top. They're doubling up.'" said Steelers rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett Wednesday. "He knows. He's a great player and he wants to help us win. We'll get him in some spots to be successful."

That could include moving Johnson around the formation more so than the Steelers have been doing.

Johnson has run just 47 snaps out of the slot this season compared to 389 snaps on the outside of the formation.

The Steelers could align him differently or send him in motion more often to get Johnson free from the double teams opponents are using on him.

"If he's getting doubled, it's tough to get him the ball. They know how great of a player he is," Pickett said. "I think if we move him around and don't keep him in the same spot, it's a great way to get him some opportunities."

That could happen as soon as Monday night when the Steelers travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts won't make things easy. Their top cornerback, Stephon Gilmore, has traveled at times with the opposing team's best wide receiver this season. He's allowing a 59.5 percent completion percentage and hasn't given up a touchdown pass this season while limiting quarterbacks to a 75.6 pass rating in his coverage.

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

But Gilmore also has played just five defensive snaps from the slot this season, so bumping Johnson inside more than he has this season, might get him away from Gilmore.

"He moves around. We'll see how they play us," Pickett said of Gilmore. "They've got a great four-man rush. Their linebackers, they're fundamentally sound. You don't see people getting behind them. They don't have a lot of breakdowns in coverage. They do a good job of keeping a lid on it. We've got to be detailed, protect the football. I've got to make good decisions to get us in scoring position."

That's the key. Pickett hasn't turned the ball over in his past two starts. And he's not inclined to force the ball into a double-team situation because of that.

Instead, he's been getting the ball to others as Johnson has continued to get more attention.

Freiermuth had eight receptions for 79 yards, while rookie George Pickens had four receptions for 83 yards and a touchdown against the Bengals.

"That's kind of the game that defenses have to play. Who are you going to take away? Where am I going to go with the football with the guys that we have?" Pickett said. "My job is to read the defense and get it to the guy that's open. That's what I'm going to continue to do."

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