When Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert talked to the media during the 2013 NFL Combine, my ears perked up when he talked about fullback Will Johnson, who made the team last year as an undrafted free agent.
“We signed Will out of the West Virginia pro day last year as a free agent, a fullback candidate, and quite honestly, he exceeded our expectations,” Colbert said in Indianapolis. “We didn\’t know what he was going to be able to do because he really didn\’t do much of what we asked him to do at West Virginia. He was more of backside-move, kind of tight end. In our situation, he became a traditional fullback and did a great job, so we\’re hoping he can continue it.”
While he only caught 15 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown as a rookie, it was easy to see the route running and pass catching ability the converted wide receiver had. As the season wore on, I wondered why he wasn\’t used more in the passing game. During his Friday talk with media, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was asked to give his thoughts on Johnson.
“Will is a special kind of back because he can block, he can catch, and he can kind of play a tight end type of role,” Roethlisberger said. “It is neat to see his improvement and his growth. We are excited about being able to use him this year a lot more.”
In the first preseason game last Saturday against the New York Giants, Johnson caught two passes for 18 yards in the first quarter and only played seven snaps. While he won\’t see that same kind of ratio during the season, it\’s obvious that offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to use the backs in the passing game even more than he did last season.
“That was intentional,” Roethlisberger said when asked about all the short passes he threw in the preseason opener. “We really wanted to do that against a 4-3 type defense. We wanted to work on our screen games and our short, underneath-type passes.”
While Johnson\’s primary role will continue to be a lead blocker, defenses will have to account for his ability to sneak out into the flat or up the field on a wheel route. That respect will have to come in the form a linebacker or safety, and if it is the former, it often times will result in a mismatch.
All offseason I have written about how I think Johnson very well could wind up with 30 receptions in 2013. While that certainly is a lot for fullback, it\’s not out of the question. While he might not ultimately hit that number, one thing is for certain and that is Will will be used more in the passing game this season. Bet your Johnson on it.