Progress, potential and motivation

For Diontae Johnson, his second season in the NFL had a little bit of everything. There were the ups and downs, the good moments, and the disappointments.

But overall, there was one thing that was consistent across the board.

Progress.

"I saw progress in all aspects of my game," said Johnson. "In my route running, knowing the game more, route coverages. Everything.

"Just by you knowing the coverage of the defense it lets you know what moves you need to make, what release you need to take, how much depth you need to get in your route. All those things come together just by you knowing the coverage of the defense. It allows you to play more smoothly and to not have to think. I have matured at every level, high school, college, and now. I feel like my play showed that this year.

"Other than those drops, my game was at the top and I felt like I played well."

'Those drops' Johnson referred to were something that plagued Steelers' receivers in 2020, and Johnson had his share. And it ate away at him. He didn't have to read the comments on social media to beat himself up even more, but he did because when you see your name keep popping up, it's hard to ignore. When someone is ripping you, even behind a keyboard, it's hard to ignore. No matter how hard you try, no matter what advice you get, it's hard to ignore.

"I let it get in my head," said Johnson. "I see people on social media bash my name. It's not like you don't see it. It's there. It's hard to put it to the side, but when you see it, it's going to be in the back of your mind. That is how it got a hold of me. I tried not to think about it. But it's in the back of my mind during practice. In the games I am like, 'Bro, catch the ball.'"

It got to the point where Johnson was pulled by Coach Mike Tomlin from the Steelers Week 14 game against the Buffalo Bills after dropping two passes in the first half. It was a turning point, where instead of letting it get to him and pouting and complaining, he turned it into a positive and rebounded, earning praise from Tomlin for how he handled it.

"By Coach Tomlin pulling me out of the game, doing it like he did it, once he did that, I knew I had to tighten up and catch the ball," said Johnson. "Point blank period. If nothing else I have to catch the ball. I had to get my mind right. I didn't throw a temper tantrum or anything, that isn't how you handle certain situations. Everyone handles things their own way. No matter what it is, someone is going to critique you. You just add it to the fire. You just have to shut out the noise. Like Coach (Darryl) Drake used to tell us, you just shut out the noise. You just have to focus on yourself and be you. Don't overthink everything, just be you. When you do that and shut out the noise, you will be fine.

"Once I did that, things started flowing for me. It's football. If you aren't doing your job, someone else is going to take your spot. I wasn't doing my job, which was catching the ball, so he pulled me out. I respect that.

"I bounced back. I had to bounce back. I had a lot of eyes on me, people counting on me. I couldn't fold. I came too far to just go into the gutter. I had to come back and show them I am still Diontae Johnson. I showed that and will continue to show that this upcoming season."

Take a look at photographs of Steelers WR Diontae Johnson from the 2020 season

Johnson put the voices out of his head and went to work. He spent time after practice catching the ball, working with equipment assistant Lou Blade, who didn't let him slack off, stayed on him to keep him positive, and gave him the encouragement he needed.

"After I had the drop, I came back, locked in, I was catching the ball after practice with Lou," said Johnson. "He stayed on top of me, made sure I was on top of catching the ball every day. That helped give me the confidence to get back to myself.

"I always try to be perfect. I have to just go out there and play and not overthink everything. It's a mindset thing."

In addition to Blade, another person who made sure Johnson had the right mindset was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The 2020 season was the first time the two worked together at length after Roethlisberger missed the majority of the 2019 season, and Johnson enjoyed every minute of it.

"Ben is a future Hall of Famer. The things he has done so far in his career are amazing," said Johnson. "I love it. I take advantage of every second. I am taking advantage of everything with him, soaking up as much information as I can from him and applying it to my game.

"He is always helping me. If he wants me to do a certain thing on a route, he will give me some pointers. If he sees a defender playing a certain way, he tells me where he is going to put the ball. Stuff like that. I just put those in the back of my mind in case a moment like that comes up. I will remember the talk we had so I can expect where the ball is going to be.

"I am all ears when it comes to him talking to me about stuff. He will talk to me about film, what he likes, and he doesn't like, how hard I work and this and that. Stuff like that you don't forget. It makes you work harder. Our conversations are valuable. I am always willing to listen to somebody that is older than me, that has information that can help my game get better. Ben is in a situation to do that."

Roethlisberger is also in a situation to pick up Johnson when he needs it. And he didn't hesitate to do that last season. 

"He would text me every other day, checking on me, making sure I am good, making sure I am straight on the plays, making sure I am good on the plays," said Johnson. "It shows he cares. He just wants me to be great.

"I feel like if I had a bad practice, or if I didn't run a route the way I wanted, I would be thinking about that route the whole day. He would tell me send me the route, and critique me on it. He would talk to me about my speed off the ball. He would tell me I did good, even though there were times I felt like I didn't. That only motivated me more."

When it comes to motivation, Johnson is about as motivated as anyone possibly could be right now. He still has a lot of untapped potential, the potential that was visible on many occasions of him being a player who can break a game open.

"I have barely scratched the surface of my full potential," said Johnson. "Only God knows where that is going to go. I am putting my full trust into God and always believe in myself, have confidence in myself and just work, let my work do the talking.

"I feel like I can bring a spark to the team. I feel like I bring good energy to the team. When I get going, I feel good, I feel happy, doing what I love doing."

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