Where In The World Is Will Johnson?

By Matthew Marczi

The Pittsburgh Steelers really should be using Will Johnson more. They have been falling behind so far and so quickly that it has neutered their ability to be more varied and unpredictable, which generally calls for more receiving options—in other words, few two back sets, and lots of three wide receivers. But perhaps they are falling into catch-up mode too quickly.

Obviously, I am not in Todd Haley’s playbook and am not privy enough to his general tendencies to know how far he strays from his norm based on whether or not his team is trailing early and often.

However, it is glaringly obvious that the Steelers are not using Johnson as much as they have in the past, nor are they using them as they have in the past, and likely not with the frequency that they would prefer to utilize him, either, which goes back to the question of calling the game based on the scoreboard.

After missing the first game with a hamstring injury, Johnson played just seven snaps the following week. In game three, his snap count was upped to 17 on 69 total offensive plays, which obviously seemed to be a positive sign. Last game, however, he played only ten snaps out of the team’s total 79.

About half of them—maybe only four—came in his traditional fullback role, in the backfield. The rest had him lined up alongside or just off the line of scrimmage, either by default or after sending him in motion. For example, on Le’Veon Bell’s two carries for his second touchdown, Johnson went in motion to the left on both plays to block an edge rusher, rather than serve as a lead blocker.

From my own observations, Johnson’s weekly snap counts have by no means been performance-based by any stretch of the imagination. By and large, he has done what he has been asked to do on a consistent basis. I intend to take a closer look at some of his sparse plays from the past game in a separate article.

But how to explain not only the frequency with which the Steelers are employing Johnson, but the manner? Even as a rookie, Johnson gradually worked his way up to playing about a third of the team’s offensive snaps, yet through his three games played, he is averaging just under half that at 16.7 percent.

Is his hamstring still an issue? It is hard to say, especially given that he also continues to contribute on special teams in some capacity. Is it because the offense has been playing from behind for almost the entire season?

Perhaps both issues are at play here, but is there something more to it? Where are Will Johnson’s snaps? Will winning bring them back? Will the off week reshape the game plan? At least one thing is obvious, and that is that the 11 personnel is not sufficiently getting the job done.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Xclewsive

    With all the hype going into the season about Will Johnson he hasn’t gotten many chances. With the Steelers struggles at TE early on I thought he’d be a good option to feel that void.

  • RW

    Thank you for writing this. He really needs to be on the field. A lot. Maybe even at left tackle…

  • Callentown

    Nope. None of those reasons Mr. Marczi. It’s just Haley as OC.

  • Fr33th1nk3r

    Exactly. They talked all offseason about how WIll Johnson and Bell would be called upon to make up for some of the lost production from Miller being hurt. Have yet to really see that come to fruition.

  • charles

    Remember the Chiefs 2 seasons ago. Remember Jamaal Charles’ 1500 yds? The Steelers right side looks just like that. Replace Charles with Bell.
    Blindside protection would seem to have had a strong effect on how Haley has used the TEs so far.
    The Steelers chances this year rest almost solely on Haley. I would be surprised if our defense wins any games.

  • Eric

    Will Johnson is harder to find than Waldo. During training camp, many reports said no one could cover WJ over the middle. I would have thought that we would have tried that option by now.

  • Luke Shabro

    Every time I see Will Johnson targeted it seems like he’s gaining 8-15 yards. I know you can’t throw to your FB 20 times a game but come on man!

  • Callentown

    Too much confusion. Blockers still can’t recognize stunts. The game plan seems out of place and we aren’t seeing some of our better players or plays.

    Haley is the reason. In fact, trace the Steelers decline on a timeline with his arrival. They match up perfectly.

    We DO have player personnel issues that are obviously not because of Haley. But when you see a group who is not on the same page thru 4 games, that’s the OC every time.

  • charles

    Unfortunately, I can’t agree. Offenses get better as the year progresses, they don’t come out firing on all cylinders right out of the gate. Ds on the other hand have the advantage at the start and that advantage starts to decline as fatigue of the season sets in.
    In fact given the progression of the O and what the NFL wants to see, I would say the Steelers are poised to not only win the division but possibly a lot more. The O is gaining a lot of steam.
    Take a look at the Chiefs. They are a surprise and they seem to be solid, but the new coach did not do that in 8 weeks, he is giving solid coaching to the solid team that Haley constructed.
    Our D is our PROBLEM!!!

  • Steeler Wheeler

    anyone got any data for when WJ is on the field? Not so much interested in total yards/carry or play, that gets skewed by big plays, although over time that is helpful…I’d like to see the percentage of plays that ended up shitty, poor, ok, good, or great with Will on the field and with out?

  • PA2AK

    They clearly need to utilize the 21 personnel better. With our skill position talent, this is the best combination. Having A.B., [insert WR], Heath Miller, Will Johnson, Le’Veon Bell all on the field seems to be our most versatile and productive group of players. Heath is as good or better blocking than any OL on the edge and obvious clutch receiver. Will Johnson is great when leading out of the backfield (please quit lining him up as a TE on the line). AB and a rotation of different #2’s (we clearly don’t have one yet). This will give us the most success in the run and pass. We need backup for the OL on pass-pro. and Bell needs someone to take the first man running free at him, or at least someone that might provide a push.

    The multiple TE set doesn’t work for us. DJ isn’t a bad blocker, but tends to miss the right block, or not peal off quick enough to get second level. He’s also not a great threat in the pass situation. Paulson couldn’t block a geriatric patient, and after watching him just motion behind the line I lose confidence in him ever touching the ball [he just has a pansy demeanor out there].

    It may be bread and butter or vanilla….but the slow development of Haley’s plays that seem to rely on trickery and too much misdirection give the OL (which isn’t good to begin with) an uphill battle toward reestablishing the line of scrimmage. They also seem to come out with a personnel package that broadcasts what type of play is coming. The 21 personnel grouping gives a great breadth of possibilities….maybe that’s why it is so common?

  • Riverstko

    Hate to say this as good as a player will j is the fullback barely exist in the nfl anymore hardly any team use them. A hybrid tight end has more need. Example Eifert, Jimmy Graham. This is the 2000s not the 1980s. Time to wake up and win GM.