Injury Forces A Cameo Fullback Appearance By Will Johnson

The Pittsburgh Steelers have listed Will Johnson as a fullback for the length of his career, now in his fourth season, but the reality is that he has not really been a fullback for the past two years. In fact, yesterday was the first time that he has taken a snap at fullback all season—perhaps in the past two years—and those opportunities only arose due to injury.

This year, the Steelers kept first-year fullback Roosevelt Nix on the 53-man roster after earning a spot on special teams, but they also liked what the 260-pound former linebacker was able to do in a straight line as a lead blocker.

So as it so happened, whenever the Pittsburgh offense needed a lead blocker to come out of the backfield, it had been Nix lining up in front of Le’Veon Bell or DeAngelo Williams to lead the way, and the fact of the matter is that he has had some success doing it, although he also has had his shortcomings, particularly blocking at an angle.

But during the course of the game, in the second half, Nix suffered a foot injury that resulted in him being carted back into the locker room. Mike Tomlin said after the game that it was an injury to the fifth metatarsal in his foot.

The Steelers do not often use a fullback, but when they got an opportunity set up at first and goal from the one-yard line after a pass interference penalty in the end zone, out came Nix, who helped block for Williams’ first touchdown of the day about four minutes into the third quarter.

The next time the Steelers found themselves with first and goal at the one-yard line—again due to a pass interference call in the end zone—they spread out five targets, including three tight ends, and it would have resulted in a pick six had it not been for a defensive offside call that wiped out the play.

On the following play after the penalty, it was Johnson lined up as the lead blocker for Williams, in addition to an extra lineman. While he was stopped for a loss of a yard on first down, he scored on second and goal from the two, with Johnson helping to set the edge with a block on the safety to help Williams reach the right sideline.

Over the course of the season, Johnson has seen his playing time, both on offense and on special teams, sharply curtailed in favor of Nix, in spite of the fact that the former has always been listed as the first-team fullback.

The reality is that, for the past two years, Johnson has actually served as the third-team tight end, behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, with his snaps taken at the line of scrimmage rather than in the backfield. Other than the odd experiment of giving him a couple of carries in the season opener, this was his first look from behind the center in some time.

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