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Ron Cook: Diontae Johnson is paid like a top WR, but he hasn't played like one

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Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson makes a diving catch for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson makes a diving catch for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, Dec. 27, 2020, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. (Peter Diana/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

Mike Tomlin answered 23 questions at his weekly press briefing on Tuesday. Three of the first seven were about Diontae Johnson. Surprisingly, Tomlin wasn't asked if he has put out a missing-person bulletin on Johnson, who hasn't been seen much on a football field this season.

Johnson hardly was seen at all on Sunday in the Steelers' 37-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. He was targeted just five times and had four catches for 21 yards. Ten games into the season, he still doesn't have a touchdown catch.

This is the team's alleged top receiver?

"I don't really want to speak too much on that," said a forlorn-looking-and-sounding Johnson after the Bengals game. "A lot of that stuff is out of my control. I know it looks like I'm not involved, but it is what it is. The situation that I'm in, I've got to deal with it."

This isn't what Johnson was expecting after his first three NFL seasons, all of which were productive. Last season, his 107 catches tied for fifth-most in the league. His 1,161 receiving yards ranked 10th. He had eight touchdown catches.

But this season?

Johnson is tied for 14th in the NFL with 51 catches. His 456 receiving yards rank 47th, just behind Pat Freiermuth (482) and just ahead of George Pickens (453). Most alarming, his average yards per catch is 8.9, down from 10.9 last season. How troubling is that? Hines Ward averaged 8.3 yards per catch in his final season when he no longer could play.

This also wasn't what the Steelers expected from Johnson after they signed him to a two-year, $36.7 million contract extension in August that runs through the 2024 season. His salary cap hit of $7.6 million ranks fifth on the team this season and will jump to fourth next season at $16.3 million behind only T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

At the time, Johnson's new deal seemed like a bargain because of the way the market had exploded for wide receivers.

Now, it seems like a mistake.

So who is to blame?

Johnson deserves some of the heat. He hasn't always run the best routes or made the tough catches. He failed to get two feet down in the end zone against the New York Jets and on the sideline against Buffalo. He turned in when Kenny Pickett thought he was turning out on the killer interception late in the game against Miami.

Matt Canada deserves more criticism. He hasn't done a good job scheming to get Johnson more involved and open more. If I had a dollar every time Johnson has said, "All we can do is run the plays that are called," I would be a wealthy man.

Pickett and, before him, Mitch Trubisky deserve the most blame. There have been multiple times when Johnson has been open and his quarterback has missed him or thrown him an uncatchable ball.

"With the coverage they were playing, I felt like they weren't letting Diontae get singled up," Pickett said of the Bengals' defense. "That's frustrating when he's that good of a player — that talented — and they try and take him out of the game plan. There are some things, maybe move him around more and get him in different spots to try and get him the ball."

I didn't like Tomlin's answer about Johnson any better on Tuesday:

"Diontae is a known commodity within the [Steelers receiving] group. People are going to have an agenda to minimize his impact on the game, particularly in significant moments, possession-down, red zone football."

So what does that mean? Are the Steelers going to continue forgetting about Johnson because of the opponent's coverage? If you have a top receiver, don't you have to give him a chance to make more plays, 50-50 balls, the coverage be damned?

I'm guessing Johnson is asking those questions.

By all accounts, Johnson has been a good teammate despite his halftime blow-up with Trubisky during the Jets game. His frustration stems from the Steelers' 3-7 record more than it does from his lack of production. I don't see him turning into a disruptive diva the way, you know, Antonio Brown did. It's not like he didn't get his money.

"He's a professional," Tomlin said. "Obviously, there's frustration. He wants to be a component of why we win, and the significant component. But he is also a professional and understands the dynamics of team play and what has to transpire for him to get opportunities. As a young guy, he's been a beneficiary of that in the past, as people have focused their energies on other known guys, for example."

Johnson has promised to carry on.

"I've just got to keep playing."

Really, what else can Johnson do?

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