The David Johnson Conundrum

I love David Johnson.

Ok, maybe love is a little strong of a word. But he was undervalued in his first stint and the second time around, he has the chance to carve out a niche role as a blocker.

Regardless of Ladarius Green’s status, Johnson is going to be a backup tight end. If he does fall into that #2 spot because Green is out, he would seemingly fit the bill of the next Matt Spaeth, the blocker who runs at the speed of tectonic plates.

And in same ways, he absolutely fits. But in key areas, he doesn’t. And unfortunately, there isn’t anything he can do to fix it.

Spaeth was 6’7, 270 pounds out of college. Maybe even heavier by the end of his Steelers’ career. Johnson is built like a Thanksgiving ham but standing at just over 6’1, he barely comes up to Spaeth’s chest.

Believe it or not, and I’ll be the first to raise my hand that I was totally wrong and made a major assumption about, is that Johnson’s 6’1 frame actually offers a lot of length. 33 3/4 inch arms, nearly matching Spaeth’s. Seriously. Check it out.

Despite that, he lacks the overall frame of a traditional, Y tight end. He’s a hybrid type, able to play fullback, and that was likely a driving factor for why the team signed him. They didn’t have a backup to Roosevelt Nix until that point.

And with an undesirable frame, it presents issues for what Todd Haley will want him to do as a blocker. Which is to say, everything. They’re treated like offensive linemen and there isn’t an assignment they won’t be asked to do. Or a matchup they won’t be asked to take on.

That’s what I want to address today. As much as Johnson succeeds as a blocker, he could struggle in some matchups the Steelers are going to put him in. Let’s check out three examples.

The first comes against the Cincinnati Bengals. Pittsburgh is in 12 personnel but keeps both tight ends in to block the Bengals’ ends. Heath Miller is tasked to the 6’6, 277 pound Carlos Dunlap and Spaeth on Wallace Gilberry. Spaeth does get helped from an uncovered Alejandro Villanueva but it comes late in the rush.

The bumblebee jerseys make it a little tough to see in the next clip but Spaeth is lined up to Villanueva’s left. This is a trap run to the left, David DeCastro and Roosevelt Nix pulling right to left. Spaeth is asked to down block the 6’7, 266 pound Michael Johnson. The EMOL is able to bust this play up so it’s hard to put any blame on Spaeth, who used the size he had to match up and carry out his assignment.

And a similar look here as the first example. Jesse James’ first game. He’s asked to stay in and block the 6’4 263 pounds, 35+ inch armed Aldon Smith. By himself. Smith shows a nice club and rip at the very end, getting past the rookie.

Welcome to the league, rook.*

*Also, Antonio Brown is insane.

Again, Johnson is a wonderfully competent blocker. He has been since day one and he’s a guy you want on your team. You can line him up in a lot of places and you know what you have, meaning you can scheme him exactly how you want. But he offers limitations and that’s a hindrance to this offense. That lack of size is going to be a problem against the Dunlap’s and Johnson’s of the world.

That’s why the team, if Green’s injury keeps him out for an extended period of time, the Steelers could, should, in my unworthy opinion anyway, explore for a tight end that has that Spaeth-type frame. A Levine Toilio, standing in at 6’8 260 pounds with 34 1/2 inch arms. Or a John Phillips, 6’5 253 also sporting 34 1/2 inch arms. That would, from a measurables perspective, give the team exactly what they need to make this offense hum.

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