Most fans and players would like to forget about the last time the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills faced off back in December.
The primetime matchup was an ugly performance, one that was partially understandable considering it was the team's third game in just eleven days. The Steelers struggled to get anything going offensively from the start.
Part of those struggles involved Diontae Johnson. It was well-documented that Johnson had struggled with drops up to that point. Johnson proceeded to drop two of his targets on the Steelers' first two offensive drives. After that, the lowest point of his young career was approaching as Mike Tomlin informed him that he was benching him.
The Steelers managed to put just one scoring drive on the board in the remainder of the second half with Johnson sidelined. After the game, he mentioned a halftime conversation with his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, where he was asked, "Do you want to play?"
Of course, he did. Johnson appreciated Roethlisberger approaching him and he told reporters that it gave him confidence. When the second half began, Johnson got another shot. Johnson would catch four balls in the second half for 40 yards. His best play of the night was winning a one-on-one against Bills star corner Tre White. White was in press coverage but failed to even get a hand on Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Johnson caught a slant that netted a 17-yard gain.
That play didn't mean much for the outcome of the game, but it still carries significance a year later. Johnson is the Steelers' best route runner, but he's also their best receiver in terms of beating press coverage at the line of scrimmage. The Bills had a ton of success in their last matchup by beating up on the other receivers and winning with physicality.
But it's hard to do that with Johnson. While certainly not the strongest player, he's an insanely quick athlete whose footwork and calculated release package make him nearly impossible for even the best corner in the league to defend. It's what makes him a glove-like fit for what the Steelers look for in their X receivers.
In their last matchup, Buffalo was the bully on defense. It remains to be seen whether or not they will deploy that same approach this time around. If they do, Johnson is the X-factor to counter that philosophy. However, it will be dependent on him catching the football for his quarterback.