Steelers Receiver Taking Unique Approach to Combatting Drops

Diontae Johnson

Michael Reaves/Getty Images Diontae Johnson of the Pittsburgh Steelers makes a catch against the Jacksonville Jaguars on November 22, 2020.

At the end of last week, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson did a Zoom call with assembled media, and the majority of the four-minute session revolved around his problem with dropped passes. That’s somewhat concerning in itself, as it may be difficult him to fully overcome the issue if it remains an ongoing source of discussion, as he noted during his response to a question from Mark Kaboly of The Athletic.

Trying to explain why he struggled with drops in 2020, he said: “Just taking my eye off the ball that one split second. Drop the ball right there and it goes in the back of your mind and you constantly think about stuff like that.”

Diontae Johnson’s New Tennis Ball Machine

He went on to reveal that he is taking a brand-new approach to combatting the problem, telling Nick Farabaugh of Pittsburgh Sports Now that he purchased a tennis ball machine during the offseason, and that he’s been working to catch tennis balls propelled at him at a high rate of speed.

“Cause it’s a smaller target, so you really gotta focus on the ball—it’s not a big object coming at you,” he noted.

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It remains to be seen if tennis balls help with the problem. At one point, it looked like Johnson had the potential to be the Steelers’ No. 1 receiver, but his inconsistent hands have held him back from maximizing his potential. Moreover, his dropped passes—and those of starting tight end Eric Ebron, as well as other Steelers receivers—became a source of frustration for Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin last year.

In fact, in mid-December Tomlin issued his pass-catchers an ultimatum, saying, “They can catch the ball, or they can get replaced by someone who will catch it. It’s just as simple as that. Like I’ve often said, I expect guys to make routine plays, routinely. When there is a pattern of that not happening, we have to look at who we are throwing the ball to.”

Mike Tomlin: ‘Last Year is Last Year’?

Meanwhile, Tomlin indicates that that he hasn’t worried about dropped passes of late.

“I haven’t given a lot of thought about it,” he said, after last Wednesday’s practice. “Last year is last year. Everyone starts anew as far as I’m concerned. It hasn’t been a real topic of discussion to be honest with you.”

Unfortunately for Johnson, his issues with dropped passes didn’t begin last year—or when he arrived in Pittsburgh. In fact, his “inconsistent” hands may have played a role in him falling to the third-round of the 2019 draft, when the Steelers selected him No. 66 overall out of Toledo. He has also had issues with ball security, as he had seven fumbles during his first two years in the NFL, this according to Pro Football Reference.

Yet Johnson’s big-play potential is undeniable. Last year he caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns, up from the 59 catches, 680 yards and five touchdowns he contributed as a rookie.

The main thing that can help him produce even better numbers going forward is simply catching the ball when it is thrown to him.

“That’s the main thing, focus, and just making sure you look the ball all the way in before you run and whatnot. So I’ve been focusing on that a lot,” he said on Thursday. “Catch first and run second.”

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