The Pittsburgh Steelers may be down one member of their backfield on Saturday depending on whether or not their starting running back, DeAngelo Williams, is able to play through a foot injury suffered in the regular season finale, but there is one member of the backfield that they know they will be without, and that is first-year fullback Roosevelt Nix, who was put on injured reserve after suffering a foot injury of his own in the penultimate game of the season.
Nix came on strong in the preseason as a presence on special teams and earned himself a roster spot that way, but he also showed well for himself on offense serving as a lead blocker out of the backfield, which is a position that the Steelers had moved away from in the previous years.
Will Johnson had served that role in his first season or two before moving near-exclusively to tight end, in part to make himself more available in 11 personnel sets during the no huddle, but without Nix, he has seen his first snaps at full back in a quite a while, and the first in the backfield since the season opener when he was used as a goal line back.
Johnson saw nine snaps in all on Sunday, bringing his season total up to just 90, the fewest of his career. He served a variety of roles against the Browns, starting out in a three-bunch set of all tight ends lined up as receivers on the early fumble on the opening drive.
His second snap also came on the last of a drive, this the second drive that ended in a touchdown pass. Facing second and goal at the two-yard line, the Steelers split into a three-tight end set again, this time set up as blockers, with Johnson in motion as the right-side blocker. Set up in a run look, it was instead a pass play to Heath Miller for the score, with Johnson protecting the right side against the pass rush of Cam Johnson.
His next snap came midway through the second quarter with the Steelers backed up inside their own 10, turning again to 13 personnel. Johnson again faced Johnson off the edge, though this time in run support, and on the back side of the play, the two battling for leverage.
The Steelers moved away from heavy tight end looks until late after having built a comfortable lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, he got back-to-back plays on goal-to-go, on second down, getting in motion to lead on a shovel pass for Antonio Brown that produced four yards.
On third and goal, he served as a decoy on a bizarre read-option look from Ben Roethlisberger, who pulled the ball out of Johnson’s midsection—lined up as a running back on this play—only to misfire on what should have been a sure touchdown to Brown.
After the Steelers got the ball back again with under five minutes to play, they ran three straight times, opening in a three-tight end look, again with Johnson and the two-tight end set serving on the back side of the play, but he showed good persistence on the play, requiring him to hop over a fallen player to pursue the block.
Though it may not be a significant increase, Johnson may well see his workload on the rise as the offense adjusts to a running game without its fullback and as Johnson splits reps with rookie Jesse James as the third tight end.