There’s nothing more that Dionate Johnson wants than to put the 2022 season behind for good. But in the eyes of critics, the only way he’s doing that is by having a bounce-back 2023 season. It’s not just producing when he gets the ball, it’s producing even when he’s not, a demand that Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has challenged him with.
“Coach T gets on me a little bit about blocking downfield,” he said August 21 press conference. “I wanted to show him I can block well. That’s something I try to work on, doing it in camp this season. It’s not like I can’t block, I just have to put it on film.”
Johnson has attacked that demand head-on and focused on his blocking skills this offseason, which paid off in the form of a critical block on cornerback Dane Jackson in their August 19 victory over the Buffalo Bills. The move helped running back Jaylen Warren break free for a 62-yard score, the second-longest play of the 2023 preseason (Calvin Austin scored a 67-yarder the week before).
“I wasn’t even touched,” Warren told Steelers media after the game. Had Johnson not done his part, he certainly would’ve been, and the mad dash to the end zone might have never happened.
“Just being a team player,” Johnson said when asked about the block, “just being a team player, whether the ball come my way or not, just do my job because you never know where the ball gonna be. The play call was to my side, so I had to be on point.”
For Johnson, the ability has always been there, but he revealed that it ultimately comes down to is will. “I always can block, it’s just me wanting to do it sometimes. It may look like I don’t do it sometimes, but I do,” he said with a smile.
It’s Do-or-Die Time for Steelers’ Diontae Johnson
Though football is the ultimate team sport, the term “number-one receiver” is used a lot by the NFL media, despite some thinking it’s a sham. Well, it’s been years since the Pittsburgh Steelers had a true number-one receiver (ahem, Antonio Brown). To think of a guy who wasn’t able to find the end zone over 17 games as any team’s top receiving threat is preposterous — especially right after signing a lucrative extension.
But Diontae Johnson, 27, is going to try to be that guy, especially with the wildly talented George Pickens breathing down his neck. He’ll never publicly say it, but we know it’s going through his head and likely providing a fire under him like he’s really never had before in Pittsburgh.
“It was an odd year, very weird,” Johnson said of his 2022 season. “It was hard to like really cope with it every week. I’d think, ‘I wonder if I’m gonna get in the end zone this week? I wonder if I’m gonna get my touches?’ Now, I can’t do anything about it, it happened. I had to move forward. I just had to keep playing every week, trying to do my best just to not think about it.
Johnson is confident it’ll happen for him this season, especially with his anticipated improvement in play-calling. “I believe Kenny (Pickett) is gonna get me the ball this year and the coaches are gonna call the plays we need to call to make that happen.”
Johnson has shown he can be a productive piece for Pickett and Pittsburgh. In 2021, per Pro Football Reference, he had a career-high in yards with 1,161, good for the NFL’s 10th-best, and earned him Pro Bowl honors. That was with Ben Roethlisberger but no reason why he can’t replicate or surpass that with the younger Kenny Pickett.
It’s do-or-die time for the veteran. He may have one year left on this contract after this season, but 2023 could be his last in Pittsburgh if he can’t return to form in 2023. According to Over the Cap, Johnson’s projected $15.83 earnings in 2024 account for 6.2 percent of the cap. The Steelers could pocket $10 million if he’s traded before June 1, 2024, and dead money ($5.8 million) is pennies by NFL standards. Should George Pickens, Allen Robinson and Calvin Austin prove to be a formidable trio, he could be expendable.