The Steelers returned to the win column with a 16-10 triumph over the Bengals on Sunday, but not without some controversy.
Well, perhaps it wasn't controversy as much as it was deserved scrutiny of one particular player, receiver Diontae Johnson. The Steelers wideout has been through plenty in 2023, missing a month due to a hamstring injury before returning to play an important part in Pittsburgh's offense, then receding into the background in a Steelers unit that was so abysmal, its offensive coordinator was fired prior to Week 12.
On Sunday, Johnson's emotions got the best of him. He was so visibly disinterested in participating in one play (which resulted in a Steelers turnover), viewers wondered why Johnson was on the field. Head coach Mike Tomlin addressed the matter Tuesday, admitting Johnson cannot "let the emotions of the previous down affect the next down," per ESPN.
Johnson addressed the sequence on Wednesday.
"I addressed the situation to my teammates," Johnson said. "They know how I feel and how I should go about the situation the next time it occurs. I own up to it. I'm not perfect. All I can do is move forward and keep playing football."
After appearing to catch a first-quarter touchdown pass, Johnson's scoring snag was ruled incomplete due to the receiver failing to survive the ground at the end of the catch process. The ruling frustrated Johnson, so much that he made almost no effort on the ensuing play. Johnson lined up to the left, and when the ball was snapped, he took two steps as if he was participating in a walk-through session, while all of the other 21 players operated at full speed.
Steelers running back Jaylen Warren fumbled in the vicinity of Johnson, where the receiver could have fallen on the ball to retain possession. Instead, as the ball bounced mere feet in front of Johnson, the receiver was already turning back slowly to walk toward the huddle, still visibly upset about the result of the previous play.
Cincinnati's D.J. Turner recovered the ball behind Johnson, looping around the receiver on a return down the sideline. Johnson's demeanor never changed through the end of the play, which concluded 25 yards downfield.
Johnson pleaded ignorance when addressing the media on Wednesday, explaining he didn't see what had happened.
"I didn't know the play was still going," Johnson said. "If I could make the play again, I would jump on the ball."
Regardless of reason, Johnson became acutely aware of how he'd made a mistake in the moment. It's not the first time he's allowed his emotions to take over, either, in what has been a trying season for every member of Pittsburgh's offense.
Though we can't know for certain, Johnson's lack of effort was likely exposed in a film session following the game. If the viewing public could notice his lack of effort from across an establishment, the Steelers definitely saw it, too.
"They didn't say nothing really," Johnson said of how his teammates responded to how he addressed the play internally. "More of just me owning up to what I did on Sunday to the team. Just letting them know it won't happen again."
Headlined by Johnson and young wideout George Pickens, Pittsburgh's receiving corps is undoubtedly talented. But each of the aforementioned pass-catchers have been outwardly emotional regarding their performance, usage and results in the last year. And on Sunday, Johnson allowed it to affect his performance.
"It's not something I try to do on purpose. Nobody is out there just trying to mess up," Johnson said. "I'm human just like everybody else out there. … I know what I've gotta do. … I'm not perfect, so I just try to make plays at the end of the day. Sometimes things may not go your way. I'm doing the best I can to keep play. That's all I can do is keep trying."
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, the blunder didn't cost the Steelers, who left Cincinnati a winner with a 7-4 record. They're in the thick of a tight AFC North playoff race. But with the margins so slim, they can't afford another instance like Sunday.