PITTSBURGH (AP) — Diontae Johnson stood on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice field, leaned to his left and took in a short underhand flick from a member of the team's support staff.
Over and over again Johnson collected the pass in his outstretched hands while another staff member hovered just in front of the third-year wide receiver, all in an effort to create a little muscle memory to prepare Johnson for what he will face from Baltimore cornerback Marlon Humphrey on Sunday when the Ravens visit Heinz Field.
“(Humphrey) is aggressive, so he’s going to try to pull, pull and tug on you and whatnot,” Johnson said Thursday. “So I just practice to kind of get used to it so like whenever he does that I’m not shocked.”
Few things have caught Johnson by surprise in 2021. A year after his 16 drops led the NFL — many of them routine plays in which his feet or his head seemed to get ahead of his hands — Johnson has just one through 11 games while quietly becoming an on-field leader for a receiving group missing JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is out for the season after injuring his right shoulder in Week 3 against Las Vegas.
The reserved 25-year-old Johnson is not one to lead with his words. He prefers to go about his business and if it sets an example for others to follow, all the better. Look no further than the fourth quarter of last week's dismal 41-10 whipping in Cincinnati as proof.
With the game long since decided, Pittsburgh's starters remained in. Johnson caught six of his game-high nine passes in the final 15 minutes. It wasn't just piling up stats in garbage time. For Johnson, it was a chance to show the importance of doing your job regardless of the situation.
“There's still time on the play clock, so what's the point of giving up,” Johnson said. “You can still fight to try and come back and score. I'm just not built like (someone who quits). I'm going to fight to the end regardless of the score.”
It's a mindset that's helped Johnson — all 5-foot-10 and 183 pounds of him — go from a relatively unknown third-round pick in the 2019 draft to the closest thing the Steelers have had to Antonio Brown since the perennial All-Pro pouted his way out of town after the 2018 season.
Johnson has the quickness to create space in small areas and the speed to get deep. He's well aware he has the frame of a slot receiver but refuses to be pigeon-holed. First-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada likes to use Johnson in a variety of spots, and Johnson's route tree is basically unlimited.
Still, last year created a frustrating pattern. What should have felt like a true breakout year after he caught 88 passes for 923 yards and seven touchdowns instead felt like a missed opportunity. Having the ball slip through your fingers when you are getting paid to catch it will do that.
He credited his family to help hold him accountable, and he's thrown himself into his work not just physically, but mentally.
Each week Johnson posts a breakdown of each opponent's secondary and welcomes the opportunity to take on a “shutdown” corner such as Humphrey.
Johnson hopes Humphrey “travels” — meaning he follows Johnson no matter where he lines up — as a sign of respect. If not, just add one more chip to the burgeoning stack on his shoulder.
“If they don't (travel), it just shows you how (the opponent) feels about you,” Johnson said. “At the end of the day, I don't worry about that.”
Roethlisberger praised Johnson — who already has 68 catches for 809 yards and four touchdowns with six games to go — for his work ethic, and pointed to what he saw on film during a highly forgettable afternoon in Cincinnati as proof of something that can't be found on the stat sheet.
“Not quitting at the end of that game, just keep fighting through it and stuff, I just think those are all things that show growth and maturity for a young guy that is doing some great things for us," Roethlisberger said.
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh cautioned the NFL's 32nd-ranked pass defense needs to know where Johnson is “at all times.”
“Not just covering him, but tackling him after he makes the catch,” Harbaugh said. “His run after catch has been one of the best in the league.”
Johnson's 361 yards after catch rank 12th in the league and sixth among receivers. Two of his four touchdowns have come on passes of more than 40 yards. Perhaps most importantly, there's that lone solitary drop.
He stressed he didn't have some sort of “eureka” moment where everything started to click with Roethlisberger. Instead, progress came incrementally, whether before or after practices, typically with equipment assistant Lou Balde tossing it to him over and over and over.
“I can't thank him enough for just taking the time to throw to me every day even though he's got other stuff to do,” Johnson said of Balde. “He goes out of his way to do stuff for me.”
A kindness Johnson is trying to pay forward every Sunday.
NOTES: CB Joe Haden (foot) did not practice Thursday and is likely to miss his third straight game. ... CB Arthur Maulet (quadriceps) and OT Zach Banner (illness) also did not practice Thursday.
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