Though it comes as little surprise to those who have followed advanced football metrics – and maybe Mike Tomlin has, too – Pittsburgh Steelers’ WR Diontae Johnson remains one of the best receivers in getting open against man coverage. On the other side of the coin, George Pickens remains one of the worst.
PFF’s Arjun Menon tweeted out the list of best and worst receivers against man coverage this season. Johnson finished with the sixth-best open rate at 47.85% while Pickens was 86th out of 89 qualifiers at just 24.86%. Here’s the extremes of both sides.
Johnson’s rate falls just outside of the top five behind Detroit’s Amon-Ra St. Brown. Pickens, meanwhile, barely escapes the basement, 1.5 points ahead of Houston’s Chris Moore, the worst on the list.
Again, these numbers shouldn’t come as serious surprises. Johnson is one of the game’s top route runners who understands nuance and is sudden at the top of his route. Watch him here create space against the Raiders’ cornerback, creating two yards of space at the top of his route for the completion and healthy gain.
In recent weeks, Pittsburgh’s offense have moved Johnson around and played him in the slot, allowing him to run a fuller route tree and be used more often over the middle. Or to allow him to work leverage of the entire field to open up out-breaking routes, something he did time and time again in Week 15 against the Carolina Panthers, catching a season-high ten receptions.
But despite Johnson’s ability to beat man coverage, he’s yet to find the end zone. The names in the top five have all made several trips this season. Even speedy Marquise Goodwin, with just 27 receptions on the year, has four touchdowns. It’s no surprise to see him and Tyreek Hill, also one of the league’s fastest players at the top of this list.
Pickens has been negatively graded against man coverage throughout the year. With a clearly different style than Johnson, Pickens is a contested-ball player who doesn’t separate against man coverage but wins by out-leaping and winning at the highest point. Kenny Pickett has shown plus accuracy on backshoulder throws, an alternative way to get Pickens open.
Though he’s improved as a route runner, Pickens will never be a great route runner that will win in physical and contested moments more than most receivers. For a large chunk of the league, it’s a tough way to consistently win and there have been plenty of tall and big receivers who dominated the college game but couldn’t translate to the NFL due to a lack of quickness and burst. Laquan Treadwell and N’Keal Harry are two recent examples of jump ball machines who couldn’t translate from the college game. But Pickens’ body control is so excellent and his hands so strong he appears to be one of the exceptions being able to consistently win contested. The rest of his game will grow and his route tree will diversify, it already has, and he’ll win at a higher rate next season.
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