How tennis balls, hard work made Diontae Johnson one of the most dependable receivers in the NFL

Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH — Diontae Johnson is the first player on the field before games, but you have to show up pretty early to notice. He's easy to spot, too. Just look for the guy catching tennis balls near midfield.

Like clockwork every week, Johnson and assistant equipment manager Lou Balde are the only people on the field. They're putting in work when other players are still en route to the stadium.

Johnson turns his back and from 10 yards away tracks the tennis ball coming over his shoulder. He catches the ball with one hand, and they repeat the drill over and over.

This routine is repeated every day at practice, too. First ones on the field in the dog days of August. First ones on the field in the December cold, too.

"Extra work," Johnson said. "He comes up with drills half the time. I come up with some, too. I believe in him. He's progressing my game. I can't thank him enough just to throw the ball to me every day."

Johnson and Balde go through a number of different drills, but they all have one thing in common: they're designed to improve Johnson's hand-eye coordination.


Johnson did a lot of good things in his second NFL season. He led the Steelers in targets, receptions and receiving yards and also scored seven touchdowns. But he also was atop the league in one statistical category that no receiver wants to lead: drops.

Drops are not an official NFL statistic, but there is no doubt Johnson led the league last season. According to Pro Football Solutions he had 16. Pro Football Reference had him with 13.

"I've always had work ethic," Johnson said. "People have tough years. It happens to the best of them. It's how you respond. I put in work the whole offseason, and I'm continuing to do it. It's been showing in the games."

Johnson has gone from hands of stone to hands of gold. According to Pro Football Reference he has no drops in 109 targets this season. Pro Football Focus has him with one drop in 107 targets. Either way, he's changed the narrative about his game.


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