Tight end-turned-fullback Johnson could be key for Steelers
Will Johnson couldn't latch on with any NFL team two years ago. He was a serviceable tight end in search of the right situation, but the timing was never right. Then, a year ago, the stars aligned.
The Steelers signed him to a free-agent contract even though they began training camp with a wealth of tight ends, including Heath Miller, David Johnson, Jamie McCoy, Leonard Pope, Weslye Saunders and seventh-round pick David Paulson. But Johnson's season-ending knee injury and Saunders' release opened up a roster spot.
Johnson had 17 receptions in 2012, but he did most of his work as the H-back or fullback in an offense that struggled to find an identity. The West Virginia product has settled in at fullback and secured an improbable starting role this season.
That door opened because an oft-injured offensive line needed help in the run game. David Johnson was inserted into the lineup for added muscle in the trenches, but 6-foot-2, 238-pound Will Johnson transitioned almost effortlessly into that role.
“(Johnson) is probably one of the guys who can get to the second level better than anyone,” Steelers tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “He was a little shaky at first, but we see how good a player he is now that the game has slowed down some for him.”
Johnson is expected to figure prominently in offensive coordinator Todd Haley's scheme. His role in the passing game is that of a safety valve or possession receiver.
“If I earn the coaches' trust, then they'll want to use me more in the pass game,” said Johnson, who caught two passes in the season-opening 18-13 loss to the New York Giants. “I'm trying to utilize more of my talents, especially in running routes.”
But he'll earn his pay with his ability to deliver key blocks on the 42-isolation play. As the lead blocker, Johnson has to take the Mike — or middle — linebacker to carve out a run lane for the running backs.
“It's a bread-and-butter play for me,” Johnson said. “It's something Coach Haley stresses for me.”
The 42 Mike play is essentially a dive play between guard and center. Johnson's primary responsibility is to take out the middle linebacker — or anyone plugging the gap — especially on short-yardage plays.
“When I win, the back is going to have a big gain,” he said. “If I lose, we lose that down. So, it's in my hands to make sure the play is successful. That's what they pay me to do.”
It's a heavy responsibility for a converted tight end who hadn't carried the ball since he started on both sides of the ball at Centerville High School in Dayton, Ohio. However, expectations are he'll get more help from a healthy, intact offensive line.
“It's starts up front with the big boys, then it's on me,” Johnson said. “When you look at the negative plays from last year, there was always one missed assignment or lack of execution on somebody's part. It's about execution. Everyone has to be on the same page as far as run-blocking. I'm sure the yards will come.”
Johnson insisted the Steelers didn't tweak the play's design despite 42 negative run plays last season. Many of the team's failures on third- and fourth-down plays with a yard needed to make the first-down marker came on the 42 Mike.
“Will is very smart, and he's going to be the guy who sacrifices his body on that play,” center Maurkice Pouncey said. “It's all black and white for us, and all we have to do is execute.”
Johnson is considered a lead blocker, and the Steelers have used him sparingly in that role in camp. He's been deployed in the single-back formation and carried the ball on short-yardage and goal-line drills.
“They just put me back there to know the halfback's role,” Johnson said. “But I'm not going to carry the ball in the game at all. It's good to have the reps, but it's mostly about understanding what the backs are reading.”