Everyone on the Pittsburgh Steelers should be thrilled that Diontae Johnson is back on the field. Over the past several weeks, Johnson has played some of his best football and picked up right where he left off after suffering a hamstring pull back in Week 1. Unfortunately, there is one person who has not benefited from his presence on the field: fellow WR George Pickens.
This is pretty bizarre. We would have thought that having Johnson back would mean that both starting receivers would now be more efficient. This has not been the case. Since returning to the field, quarterback Kenny Pickett has peppered Johnson with targets and left Pickens with the scraps.
It's hard to argue that Johnson's targets aren't justified. Though he has had the occasional concentration drop, Johnson still possesses an innate ability to create separation at the top of his route, and he's been much more efficient after the catch with the ball in his hands this year.
Johnson has thrived upon his return. But as he continues to steal a lion's share of the targets in the passing game, the impact George Pickens has had on the football field has been as small as it has been since the Steelers drafted him last year.
Over the past two games, Johnson has reeled in 15 of 23 targets for 180 yards and a touchdown, per ESPN stats. On the other hand, Pickens has just 3 receptions for 21 yards on 10 targets during this span.
It's easy to sense the frustration from the second-year receiver as well. Pickens' body language seems to indicate just how upset he is in his reduced role now that Diontae is back. This isn't what we want at all. But can these two receivers peacefully exist on the Steelers roster?
Steelers need to find the right balance between Pickens and Johnson
We have a big enough sample now to know that both Diontae Johnson and George Pickens are quality football players who can make a big impact on the field. However, these two players are polar opposites in the way they win. This isn't a bad thing at all, but the Steelers need to recognize how to play into each other's strengths.
With Pickens drawing much of the attention over the top due to his big-play ability, it's okay for Diontae to earn more targets in the passing game. After all, he's one of the best in the business at getting open (which makes for a quarterback's best friend).
At the same time, Matt Canada and Kenny Pickett need to recognize that George Pickens is too big of a weapon down the field not to use him as such. Instead of trying to force-feed him a screen pass or squeeze the ball in on a quick slant, Pittsburgh cannot afford to abandon the back shoulder fade or the 'go' route to Pickens.
There isn't a set number of targets or percentage of the market share that each receiver needs to earn each game. Much of this comes down to what opposing defenses are looking to do and who they are narrowing in on. If Johnson starts feasting underneath, the attention will likely shift back his way, and the Steelers can then exploit one-on-one matchups with George Pickens.
This whole thing is a process and these two talented receivers haven't been playing together for very long. The biggest thing that needs to happen right now is Pickens must keep his head on straight and exercise patience. His time will come, and he is sure to explode for some monster performances.
Diontae Johnson and George Pickens can coexist on the Steelers roster. But until they iron out the kinks, Mike Tomlin, Matt Canada, and Kenny Pickett need to find ways to be a bit more balanced when it comes to distributing targets to their two best receivers.