During the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 37-19 victory over the Carolina Panthers, I joked early on that fullback Will Johnson had bought himself a season-long exile on the bench after he dropped a pass early in the game.
I was joking, of course, but there tends to be a lining of truth in all humor. After all, Johnson had only logged three snaps during the Steelers’ first two games, and there were no immediate signs that they planned on using him more heavily.
But they certainly did just that, as he logged a total of 29 snaps against the Panthers, with the majority of them coming in the second half and with a lead.
In fact, the Steelers deviated a fair bit from what had become their norm, which is the 11 personnel package with three receivers on the field. The offense moved pieces around often.
While Justin Brown played 41 of 72 snaps, for example, starter Markus Wheaton only played 45, meaning that there were times when Brown was on the field and Wheaton was not.
The Steelers actually opened up the game in a two-tight end set, and Matt Spaeth more than tripled his total snaps for the season, logging 36 snaps on the night, primarily as a blocker.
As a matter of fact, it was a penalty on Spaeth that wiped out Johnson’s lone reception later in the game on his only other target. Johnson, however, as previously mentioned, got his first extensive look of the season, and outside of the dropped pass, played well.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley explained during the offseason that the reason his snaps dropped so significantly last year was, in part, due to the offense relying more on the no huddle, which made it more difficult to switch out personnel.
The Steelers had Johnson working and studying as a tight end throughout most of the spring and summer with the idea of getting him in play for snaps in the no huddle.
It seemed during the first two games that that was a mirage, and that he would be once again relegated to the sidelines, but he got more and more snaps as the third game of the season progressed.
True to form, the majority of his snaps did come outside, set off the formation, as a tight end, rather than as a fullback. Even some of his snaps from out of the backfield were preceded by him motioning there from the edge of the formation.
Some of the Steelers’ key runs during the game were assisted by Johnson’s blocking, with all but five of his accumulated snaps engaging him as a run blocker. A more elaborate breakdown of his efforts will come later in the week.
It will be interesting to see how the offense continues to employ Johnson as the season progresses. I expect he will average more than one to two snaps per game, but I don’t think it’s likely he’ll continue to see 30 snaps per game either. Logically, it would depend on the matchup, but that hasn’t always dictated the team’s personnel decisions in the past.