Pittsburgh Steelers former undrafted free agent Will Johnson found it difficult to break into the league. When he went undrafted in 2011, the league was in a lockout, and that made it far more difficult for him to catch on with a team.
He got a chance to work out at his former university’s Pro Day the next spring, which is where Kevin Colbert saw him, which led to his signing with the team. He later won the starting fullback job as a rookie by default due to injury to his competition.
He had a surprisingly productive season as a rookie fullback, in fact, playing over 350 snaps while catching 15 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown. He also got to tote the rock twice for a total of seven yards.
This led many to predict a bigger sophomore season for the young, athletic h-back, but for whatever reason it never came to fruition.
His playing time was drastically curtailed—in fact, he played less than half the snaps of his rookie season while only missing one game. The way he was used in the passing game even changed, as his targets came from a much shallower depth.
This is borne out by his miniscule 5.1 yards per reception that he managed on eight receptions for 41 yards, though that does include a one-yard touchdown.
The steep drop in playing time and production seems counterintuitive given how frequently he is the subject of praise by the coaching staff during practice for his athleticism and receiving skills, particularly in the linebacker pass catching drills.
Perhaps one reason to account for the third-year fullback’s playing time has to do with the increased usage of the no huddle a year ago.
According to Mark Kaboly’s reckoning, Johnson did not play a single snap while the Steelers were in the no huddle last year, when they tend to use their traditional 11 personnel along with tight end Heath Miller and running back Le’Veon Bell.
One of the issues that the coaching staff has cited with the no huddle over the years is that it limits the rotation of personnel and packages.
Ben Roethlisberger told Kaboly that he believes they only used “maybe two personnel groups” last year, but this summer, they’re working on bringing more variety.
Part of that process has involved sticking Johnson with the tight ends full-time—for now—in order to present him as a more viable option in the no huddle, turning him into a chess piece that they can move around and adapt between running and passing situations.
“I am learning different routes and different reads and hots”, Johnson said for his part. Not that he’s complaining: “Hey, it gets me on the field and gives me a chance to make plays.”
There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the no huddle in this offense for 2014, and frankly it’s way too early to say how much of this could be true. The Joker Johnson experiment could be dead by the time the preseason rolls around.
But if it ever does make it into games, it should only help make the offense more dynamic. Having Johnson in during no huddle situations can keep defenses less sure of whether a run or pass is coming, and it gives him more opportunities to take his lauded receiving skills off the practice field and on to the gridiron.