Diontae Johnson or James Washington: Who'll Click With Roethlisberger In 2020?

Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Little is known about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense at this stage in the offseason. With camp hypothetically around the corner, we could get some clarity—but this room of wide receivers looks nothing like it did last time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ran the offense. In 2018, Roethlisberger fed Antonio Brown 168 targets over 15 games, with only JuJu Smith-Schuster (166 targets) coming in with more than 50 looks at wide receiver. It was a two-man show, and it was a dang good one.

But Brown is gone, and Smith-Schuster crashed down to Earth a bit in 2019 with Roethlisberger absent. Now, Roethlisberger returns to a wide receiver room offering third-year pro James Washington, who he saw a bit in 2018, and second-year standout Diontae Johnson, who flashed in 2019, but only saw Roethlisberger for 1.5 games in 2019. What can we expect from these new faces as competent quarterback play returns to Pittsburgh?

Let’s start with Washington, about whom I wrote last month in a series on the 2018 WR class. Washington was pretty bad in 2018 and then better in 2019, and there’s a strong case to be made that he could have been even better had his quarterback play leveled out. Washington only saw 65.8% of his targets arrive at a catchable spot, but that didn’t stop him from ranking just outside the top 20 (21st) among NFL receivers in yards/target. 

Washington was primarily a deep receiver in 2019 and projects to be a deep receiver again. He was 11th in the NFL in percentage of deep targets at 33.8%, significantly outstriding both big-slot Smith-Schuster (14.7%) and breakout rookie Johnson (16.3%). Washington doesn’t physically look like a classic deep receiver—he’s stocky, a bit stubby, and extremely physical in his play style. But it’s his ball-tracking and early adjustments to the football that make him such a quality downfield threat.

If Washington remains the Steelers’ primary deep threat, he’s in for significant volume. The last time Roethlisberger played the majority of a season and didn’t finish in the top 10 for deep passing attempts was in 2014. Even with his arm strength beginning to tail off in 2018, he was still 10th in deep passing percentage and sixth in passer rating on deep passing attempts. 

But remember, 2018 was the bad rookie year for Washington. The Steelers and Roethlisberger threw the ball more than any other team in the league last year, and with Brown and Smith-Schuster dominating defenses’ attention, the runway was clear for Washington to have a low-pressure role as a field-stretcher on one of the friendliest offenses for a deep receiving threat.

The simple reality was that Washington and Roethlisberger could never seem to find their connection. Washington admitted to being behind on the playbook and to thinking on the field in his first year—an understandable hurdle to overcome when you consider the simple, sight-adjusting offense from which he came from at Oklahoma State. 

Washington’s grasp on the playbook is better in 2019, and he showed good chemistry with his old college teammate in Mason Rudolph, as well as third-string gunslinger Devlin Hodges. But now, he has to recover the trust he lost from Roethlisberger in 2018 when he struggled with drops, spacing, and timing. If his details remain offkey with his quarterback, it won’t matter that his strength fits in nicely with the offense. Roethlisberger will continue to funnel targets into the ever-reliable Smith-Schuster and turn to the impressively detailed second-year pro, Johnson.

Johnson’s skill set may not look as mouth-watering as Washington’s on paper. He runs a very similar route tree to Smith-Schuster, specializing in quick-breaking slants, curls, and outs. The extra he brings is a product of where he plays: unlike Smith-Schuster, who took 246 snaps from the slot last season, Johnson was primarily a Z-receiver in Pittsburgh and took 53 snaps in the slot. This gives Johnson the ability to threaten the deep outside route and work off of it on deep comebacks and late out-breakers. According to Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception, Johnson was fifth in the NFL in the percent of his route tree dedicated to intermediate out-breaking routes (11.4%) and second in the NFL deep comebacks (9.3%).

These routes are often created by the threat of the nine route (which Johnson ran 16.9% of the time, a number right around league average), but maximize a receiver with good deceleration and quick hands to work back to the football on the boundary. That’s the case with Johnson: he’s certainly fast, but he’s not a great box-out or above-the-rim receiver, and as such, deep downfield targets don’t utilize his skill set the same way those late-breaking timing routes do. This is why, even for starting at an outside receiver role, Johnson still saw fewer air yards on a given target (9.0) than Smith-Schuster (9.6), let alone Washington (15.4, 5th in the NFL).

With Smith-Schuster entrenched in the slot and Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool added to the mix with the 49th overall pick, this becomes a convoluted battle for snap and target distribution. When Claypool was selected, Steelers GM Kevin Colbert said of the pick: “He’s a 6’4”, 230-pound receiver that can get deep, and quite honestly we didn’t have that threat last year. We didn’t have that tall receiver that can just outrun coverage. We’ve always had that in the past with Nate Washington, Mike Wallace, or Martavis Bryant. Again, that was very attractive to us in the long term. In the short term we know Chase will be a special-teams contributor right out of the gate.”

It would seem, then, that Washington still has a weak hold on the deep receiver job in Pittsburgh, and as such, he’s the best bet to become a new best friend to Roethlisberger. However, the Steelers aren’t hiding the fact that they drafted his potential replacement, so Washington’s leash is short. Meanwhile, Johnson’s film last season surpassed that of Washington, and Johnson has proven that he can work the short and intermediate route tree without needing the deep aspect to his game—so Johnson will still eat even if Washington grabs the field-stretching role. If he doesn’t, Johnson could easily blossom into a three-level threat, with enough juice and release quality to win on nine routes on top of his already impressive route tree.

There’s reason for more optimism around Washington than the community currently has for his 2020 season. He’ll get a fair shot, and with his 2019 performance considered, I think he’ll maximize it and hold down the WR3 role behind Smith-Schuster and Johnson, delivering the explosive deep plays that neither is as suited to fill. But the leash is short, and with so many new receivers in the building with the returned Roethlisberger, the coaching staff would be wise to try different things as they figure out just who works best where in the twilight of their star quarterback’s career.