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.