Pittsburgh Steelers inside linebacker Steven Johnson has drawn a lot of attention to himself in recent weeks—check that, I should say that much attention has been drawn to him. The reason for that has little to do with his own actions, but rather those of others, and of the perception of his grip on a roster spot.
The cause of the commotion is the roster status of rookie seventh-round inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who is one of six at a position in which they are likely to keep five. A great deal has been made among a modest segment of the fan base who worry that he will be claimed off waivers if he does not make the 53-man roster.
Whether or not Matakevich earns a roster spot will likely be dictated by how he performs in the preseason finale, during which he is no doubt going to receive extensive playing time. But there is a reason, even if he plays reasonably well, that he may not make the roster that some seem unwilling or unaware enough to acknowledge, which is that Johnson is a good special teams player.
I mean to say ‘unaware’ as in that in the course of the casual viewing of a game, it can be difficult to discern any individual player, outside of perhaps the return man, making a significant contribution to special teams. But though the quality of the angles in the Saints game was particularly poor, I was able to pick out Johnson on multiple occasions.
Johnson appears to have only played during the second half, with the Steelers preferring to give more first-half opportunities to players with less secure roster spots—Matakevich was among them, and L.J. Fort appeared also to play on most every unit.
The free agent linebacker made the tackle on the opening kickoff of the third quarter, tackling the returner at the 21-yard line after a 21-yard return. He was among the first down the field to defend against the Saints’ returner after their first punt of the half as well, though the returner went out of bounds.
The Saints scored a touchdown on their drive that following, and on the ensuing kickoff, Johnson worked with Al-Hajj Shabazz on a double-team block that drove Austin Johnson far upfield and well out of harm’s way.
The Steelers punted midway through the fourth quarter on a measly 33-yard boot from Will Monday, but Johnson, along with Cobi Hamilton as the left gunner, induced a fair catch, for which he received ‘props’ from Shabazz—who also got a lot of special teams work.
Prior to this past game, Pittsburgh primarily split the duties of Matakevich and Johnson, with Matakevich on the coverage units and Johnson on the return units, which may explain why he might not have seemed to stand out as much.
But the truth is that simply to say that he hasn’t noticeable is really more saying that you haven’t really been looking for him. That’s certainly not a blamable offense. Picking out special teams plays during the preseason, let alone trying to isolate specific players, with more camera angles, is no merciful task.
But I have watched these snaps with Johnson’s special teams value in mind, and it seems pretty clear that he has to offer what the Steelers anticipated from him when they signed him. Matakevich will have to earn his roster spot. Johnson is not a charity case—oh, and yes, he can also play on defense.