The Steelers dropped the ball in 2020. That’s meant figuratively. That’s meant literally.
No NFL team had more dropped passes than the Steelers’ 41 last season. Seven of those 41 drops would have resulted in touchdowns. And now, a glaring issue within a skilled group, is in need of fixing.
“Unfortunately, drops are part of the game,” Pittsburgh wide receiver coach Ike Hilliard said during last week’s minicamp. “Obviously, we had too many balls on the ground. It’s been discussed.
“Our group understands and they know that we have to do a better job not putting the ball on the ground. We work at it every day and we’re going to be cognizant of limiting our drops going forward this season.”
Chief among the the droppers was Diontae Johnson, who not only led the Steelers in dropped passes, but also led the entire league. Johnson couldn’t secure 16 catchable balls in 2020.
“It’s really just focus, just taking your eye off the ball that one split second,” he said last week. “You drop the ball there and that just goes in the back of your mind and you constantly think about stuff like that.
“That’s the main thing, making sure you look the ball all the way in before you run. So I’ve bene focusing on that a lot. Catch first, run second.”
It got so bad for Johnson that, during a December game against Buffalo, he was benched by Mike Tomlin for a Tomlin after dropping multiple passes.
Now he’s hoping that never happens again, and is putting in the work via some creative ways to make sure of it.
“I’ve been catching on my tennis ball machine I bought this offseason,” Johnson said. “It’s a smaller target, so you’ve got to really focus on the ball. It’s not a big object coming at you. That’s really been what I’ve been honing onto, so when I catch a football, it’s easy.”
Johnson is going to be a critical part of the Steelers’ offense. Despite the drops last year, he led the team in targets, with 144, and yards, with 923. Johnson is arguably the best all-around receiver in an offense with some real talent in the outside.
But if the mental blockade pops up again, it could put one of Ben Roethlisberger’s biggest weapons back in the holster.
“I’ve just got to catch the ball, that’s my job,” Johnson said. “I’m a receiver and that’s what I get paid to do so. There’s no excuses behind that. It’s all tied down to focus. If a bad play happens, you’ve got to move on from it and can’t dwell on it.”