Johnson’s Ascension To Backup RB A Curious Path

I once told Will Johnson to make Mike Tomlin give him the ball more.

I said that because I thought I was funny. Mainly because I’m stupid. He smirked and kept his head down, signing the football I brought for the Steelers vs Teachers basketball game.

It’s nice to see a hard-worker like Johnson get extra work. I just didn’t think it’d happen this way.

Leading up to the season opener, the reports indicated Will Johnson would be DeAngelo Williams’ backup. But he’d been bouncing from the tight end to running backs room, and it just didn’t seem likely that a player in his position would immediately transition to the #2 spot.

Four career carries. That’s what Johnson had in his NFL career. None back in his college days at West Virginia. Hadn’t had a positive pickup since 2012. Over the last two training camps, he hadn’t been given a single tote, and didn’t see any work at running back in the preseason until the final drive of the final game.

Instead, Johnson had become a true in-line tight end, seeing the bulk of his work there as Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth were held to snap counts and Roosevelt Nix impressed at fullback.

Had Josh Harris made this team, he would’ve been the backup. At a glance, it’s understandable for the last second decision to promote Johnson. Harris cut, Jordan Todman freshly signed, and Dri Archer, well, scorned by most people who watch him.

And aside, the fact Johnson leapfrogged Archer speaks to how little the team thinks of him as a running back. Why Archer is still considered at that position, instead of transitioning to a wide receiver, I fail to understand.

But the Steelers knew how badly Harris was injured. A torn labrum, a bum toe. Couldn’t take a hit without his shoulder popping out of place, couldn’t cut and change directions. Even before the Panthers game, the organization had to have known Harris’ chances were slim – he simply wasn’t going to be healthy enough to contribute to the team. They were going to have to find another option to be Williams’ backup.

So why delay Johnson’s role in the backfield? Why give him almost zero work at the position, teach him everything there is to be a tight end, and then switch him to running back at the 11th hour? At the very least, get him in the running back room before the Panthers game and get extensive work in the backfield, easing his comfort level before Week One.

I get it. He’s a versatile player, used to bouncing around from position to position, wearing every hat in the book. That’s why he’s still in the league. And my issue isn’t that he’s a bad running back. There’s nothing inherently awful about his game, though there are ideally better options than him. It’s the way they went about the situation, one in a long line of curious roster decisions, that bugs me.

If Ben Tate can start a playoff game and log heavy snaps, then don’t tell me Todman was unprepared to be the backup.

There are far greater issues from Thursday’s loss than this. This isn’t my battle cry, my Waterloo. I’m not mad. I’m miffed. But this decision, buried beneath the angst of the more compelling issues of the game, might bug me the most.

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