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Familiarity An Asset For David Johnson In Nix’s Absence

Just as I feared soon after the Pittsburgh Steelers announced a practice squad that featured two running backs in addition to the three that were already on the 53-man roster—and even before that, when I noticed his absence—fullback Roosevelt Nix is still ailing, evidently, from a back injury that held him out of all but the team’s first preseason game, during which he saw just three snaps on offense.

While this is a minor issue for the offense—he only averaged about 10 snaps per game played in that role, unsurprisingly mostly lined up as a fullback—this is a broader issue for special teams, wherein by the end of the season he had become a fixture.

Veteran h-back David Johnson has already confirmed that he will line up in the backfield tomorrow night when the Steelers require such a lead blocker from that position, and that is certainly nothing new for him.

He served as the team’s fullback in 2009 and 2010 before being moved to tight end in 2011. An ACL injury kept him out of the 2012 season, but when he returned in 2013, his role was replaced, and he was moved back to tight end after battling for the fullback position in the year of his injury.

During the preseason, Johnson played 67 snaps, seven of which came as a fullback. A good number of his snaps lined up at tight end also came out of the 11 personnel in which he was the only tight end on the field, which is just part of the nature of the preseason.

It will be interesting to see how much the Steelers end up using the fullback position tomorrow night. After Nix’s foot injury in the penultimate game of the regular season, the Steelers employed a lead blocker out of the backfield only three more times by the end of the playoffs, and one of those snaps featured an additional lineman as the lead blocker.

But the team brought back Johnson knowing that they expected him to be both a fullback and a tight end, and to be the backup to Nix. While the fullback position is not a significant component of the team’s offense in 2016, I do think that with Johnson in place, they will likely try to run their offense as they would anticipate.

The only thing I might anticipate changing would be if it comes to the use of 22 personnel. The Steelers may not have enough faith in Xavier Grimble to line up as the second tight end, which would likely force them to rely on an extra lineman to serve as a tackle-eligible tight end, which they did with relative frequency last season.

Either way, while Nix’s absence is unfortunate, the team is fortunate to have Johnson back, a player who has already played the role that they are asking of him. I just hope that he can also prove to be of some worth on special teams if he is asked to replace the fullback in that role as well.

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