The Pittsburgh Steelers offense was without tight end Matt Spaeth, one of the team’s best run blockers and a key fixture in their rushing game, when they played the Ravens last Thursday night.
In fact, due to the injury, they elected to make do with just one true tight end active for the game, but the truth is that fourth-year veteran Will Johnson has essentially been a tight end for the past few years, including this year.
With Spaeth out, Johnson saw an uptick in snaps, playing a season-high 17, though to say that he had a substantial impact on Le’Veon Bell’s 129-yard rushing performance would perhaps be overselling it.
Most of Johnson’s snaps came late in the fourth quarter and in overtime as the Steelers tried to nurse an evaporating six-point, and then three-point lead—not that Bell didn’t have success with him in as a blocker.
Johnson was on the field for both of Bell’s explosive runs late in the game, both on the now famous counter play, though they came with him in different alignments, but that will come later.
He was also on the field for Bell’s 11-yard reverse-field touchdown run at the end of the first half, and I suppose he deserves credit for managing to not get flagged for a hold in spite of the fact that he essentially tackled the defender, which, admittedly, helped enable Bell to reverse field in the first place.
Johnson did get one rep in pass protection during the game, on the Steelers’ first play of the fourth quarter, which went for a 12-yard reception. Lined off left tackle after motioning out of the backfield, he was put up against Elvis Dumervil, though he also received help, and it was a quick throw.
The first of Bell’s long runs came at about the four-minute mark of the fourth quarter, with Johnson lined up as an in-line blocker off left tackle. Off the snap, he set forth to the second level, successfully sealing off inside linebacker Daryl Smith to set the inside edge of the wide open rushing lane.
Then, on the second play of overtime, Johnson found success coming on the pull for the same counter run to the left, first driving the cornerback to the sideline, then, nudging him back inside after Bell managed to free himself up the sideline, showing situational awareness to continue his assignment.
It’s also worth noting that he was on the field when the Steelers ran the quarterback off the left, short side of the field on fourth and two at the end of that drive. Johnson was the inside of two extra blockers showing a false run look on the right, open side.
To his credit, Johnson played pretty well when given the snaps, but he figures to drop down to between five and 10 snaps a game with Spaeth returning. While the Steelers do seem to like him, he doesn’t appear to be ideal for anything, and it’s simply hard to get him on the field.