Johnson becoming highly paid decoy

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson is tackled by New Orleans Saints linebacker Kaden Elliss (55) and cornerback Alontae Taylor (27) during the first half in Pittsburgh on Sunday. AP Photo

PITTSBURGH — Diontae Johnson wanted to be paid like a No. 1 receiver.

The Pittsburgh Steelers obliged over the summer when they gave him a contract extension that put him within the top 20 at his position in the NFL.

So far, there has been little return on investment. For Johnson and the Steelers both.

The next touchdown the four-year veteran catches this season will be his first. His targets have dropped considerably since Kenny Pickett took over at quarterback in the middle of a Week 4 loss to the New York Jets and his 8.9 yards per reception is tied for 106th in the league.

“Any player would be frustrated,” Johnson said after managing just four receptions for 21 yards in Sunday’s 37-30 loss to Cincinnati. “But I just have to keep playing.”

Johnson has tried to be patient over the course of the season, understanding there figured to be a period of adjustment with Ben Roethlisberger — who looked for Johnson nearly 10 times a game in 2020 and 2021 — off in retirement.

Yet Roethlisberger’s departure hasn’t created much of a shift in how Pittsburgh operates. The Steelers are averaging 36.7 pass attempts a game, down slightly from 39.0 in 2021.

The difference is where the ball is going. Johnson has 36 targets over his past five games, the smallest number over any five-game stretch since his rookie year in 2019 when Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges filled in for an injured Roethlisberger.

Pickett, who has struggled with taking care of the ball at times during the early portion of his career, blamed Cincinnati’s approach for effectively discouraging him from looking Johnson’s way.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth (12), rookie wide receiver George Pickens (seven) and running back Najee Harris (six) all had more targets against the Bengals than Johnson (five).

“That’s frustrating when he’s that good of a player, that talented, and they try and take him out of the game plan,” Pickett said. “There is some things, maybe move him around more and get him in different spots to try and get him the ball.”

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes Johnson has been around long enough that he can no longer hide in plain sight, as he may have earlier in his career while playing alongside JuJu Smith-Schuster.

“Diontae is the known commodity within (the receiver) group,” Tomlin said. “So people are going to have an agenda to minimize his impact on the game.”

Maybe, but Roethlisberger still found ways to get Johnson involved last year even after Smith-Schuster went down for the balance of the regular season after injuring his right shoulder. Tomlin pointed out defenses’ commitment to slowing Johnson has created space for Pickens and Freiermuth to make plays.

That doesn’t make it easy for Johnson to watch Pickett’s passes head elsewhere on a consistent basis, particularly a player eager to prove his Pro Bowl selection after a 107-catch season in 2021 wasn’t an anomaly.

“He’s a professional,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, there’s frustrations. He wants to be a component of why we win and a significant component. But he is also a professional. He understands the dynamics of team play and what has to transpire for him to get opportunities.”

Johnson has made a concerted effort to avoid the kind of clickbait-generating comments that Pittsburgh’s past top receivers — Antonio Brown chief among them — made on a regular basis. Yet the veneer may be starting to crack.

Asked if he has his own theory on why he’s essentially become a well-compensated decoy, Johnson shrugged.

“I know it looks like I’m (not) involved (that much),” he said. “It is what it is. It’s the situation I’m in. So I’ve got to deal with it.”

NOTES: Tomlin said RB Jaylen Warren (hamstring), C Mason Cole (foot) and WR Miles Boykin (oblique) will have a chance to play next Monday night at Indianapolis. All three players were injured in the first half against Cincinnati.


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