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‘Definitely Impacts Their Game’: Diontae Johnson Matchup Will ‘Be Missed’ By Browns CB Denzel Ward


Heading into the 2023 season, expectations for the offense of the Pittsburgh Steelers were rather high, thanks to the growth and development that occurred throughout OTAs, minicamp, training camp and even the preseason for the young weapons on that side of the football.

Then, the Week One performance against the San Francisco 49ers happened. Pittsburgh struggled to throw the football as second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett was a mess from an accuracy and decision-making standpoint. It couldn’t run the football either behind an offensive line that added a key piece in Isaac Seumalo in free agency and really didn’t threaten the 49ers through the air at all due to overall route concepts.

Add in the fact that the Steelers watched standout receiver Diontae Johnson go down with a hamstring injury early in the third quarter, and it was a disastrous day all around.

It won’t get any easier in Week Two against the Cleveland Browns, who have a loaded defense under the guidance of new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Led by a terrific cornerback duo of Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II, the Browns shut down Cincinnati’s high-powered attack in Week One, holding Joe Burrow and the Bengals to just 82 passing yards.

Now, the Browns won’t have to face Johnson either, due to his injury. While it’s a big break for Cleveland, the loss of Johnson for the matchup left Ward disappointed. He told reporters Friday that he’s going to miss Johnson being out there, and that his absence will definitely impact Pittsburgh’s offense.

“He’s a great receiver, one of their impactful players they got on their team. So I think it definitely hurt them a little bit,” Ward said of Johnson, according to the official transcript provided by the Browns. “But they still got a great team, still got a lot of capable receivers that are able to make plays that we still got to go out there and cover and great rushing attack. But, yeah, like I said, Diontae is a great player, and I know he’ll definitely be missed out there.”

Johnson certainly will be missed, especially against a team in Cleveland that is going to run a ton of man coverage concepts while bringing the blitz at Pickett, much like it did against Burrow in Week One. As Steelers Depot’s own Adam Miller pointed out in a piece Friday, the Browns blitzed on 38.2% of snaps in Week One while playing man coverage on 50% of snaps.

To beat a blitz-heavy team, you need a guy that wins one-on-one consistently and gets open in a hurry. That’s Johnson. That’s who he’s been his entire career.

Over at Pro Football Focus, Arjun Menon tracked the best and worst receivers in the NFL against man-to-man coverage and Johnson was near the top of the list in 2022, ranking sixth among his peers with an elite 47.85% open rate.

Without his presence, the Steelers will have to rely on guys like George Pickens and Allen Robinson II, not to mention Calvin Austin III against Cleveland’s man-heavy scheme. Pickens struggled in that same open rate metric against man coverage, ranking 86th out of 89 receivers with a 24.86% open rate against man coverage.

That checks out in Next Gen Stats’ separation metric as well. Pickens averaged just 2.1 yards of separation last season, among the 10 worst in the league. Same for Robinson, who dealt with injuries the last few years and has struggled as a route runner.

Good news is, Robinson looks completely healthy and had a very good Steelers debut against the 49ers, finding himself open quite a bit out of the slot. We’ll see how his usage changes in Week Two and beyond with Johnson on the mend and if he will stay in the slot or move to the X, but the Steelers need that man-coverage beater on Monday night.

Johnson was that, but he’s out. Who’s going to step up? Pittsburgh will need to find an answer — and in a hurry — on Monday night. In seven career games against Cleveland, Johnson has been targeted 62 times, hauling in 30 passes for 378 yards and a touchdown. He’ll be missed out there for sure.

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