By Matthew Marczi
End-of-season player exit meetings are not something that we are often privy to as outsiders of the football world. Generally, we only get a glimpse into that world when a player is asked by a reporter how the meeting went, if the player is willing to discuss it.
Still, it’s not generally a hard concept to grasp, and we have a pretty good feel by now of how Mike Tomlin and his staff likes to operate, and we see all the game film, so it’s not an overly difficult project to simulate. If we were to administer the end-of-season player exit meetings, it might go something like this.
Player: Will Johnson
Experience: 2 Years
Fullback Will Johnson didn’t exactly have the ‘breakout’ season some predicted that he might see coming off an encouraging rookie year in 2012, during which he played in every game for a total of 366 snaps.
He was brought in as a free agent after going undrafted and unsigned in 2011, providing competition with David Johnson, who had been moved full-time at that point to fullback. However, because he suffered a torn ACL early in the first preseason game, the former Johnson became the starting fullback by default.
While he had his struggles, he slowly developed as a lead blocker, but more notably, he showed that he could be a weapon as a target in the passing game. He caught 15 passes as a rookie for 137 yards, with 81 yards coming after the catch. That included one touchdown and two receptions of over 20 yards.
The former tight end’s athleticism provides a mismatch for his coverage, which is generally linebackers. In fact, reports for this past season’s training camp were absolutely glowing with respect to his performance in one-on-one passing drills, as he routinely beat everybody he was put up against, including Lawrence Timmons.
Johnson suffered an injury late in the preseason, however, which kept him out of the first game of the season, and limited his usage. In fact, Johnson was used dramatically less in 2013 than he was the year before—nearly half as often. While he was used on nearly 34 percent of the team’s offensive plays in 2012, he was only used about 17 percent of the time last season.
On average, the fullback was limited to just 12 plays per games, often playing single-digit snaps. Since Week 11, he never exceeded 11 snaps. And in his 173 total snaps, less than a third of it came as a route runner.
Johnson caught just eight passes last year, barely half of his season total from the year before, and he totaled just 41 yards—nearly 100 yards less than in 2012. However, those eight receptions came on only nine targets, and his 41 yards came on 43 yards after the catch. Five of his eight receptions came behind the line of scrimmage, explaining the greater YAC than total yards. He also caught one touchdown pass.
So why was there so little production from Johnson this year compared to his rookie season, and relative to expectations? Was he simply not as big of a part of the game plan, or is there a more complicated explanation? I expressed my confusion over his limited use multiple times during the season, but the frequency of three-receiver packages often made it difficult for him to get on the field.
Is Johnson being underutilized as a weapon? The glowing offseason reports would seem to suggest that, though that obviously doesn’t make it true. He’s no more than an average blocking fullback, but it seems that more can be done with him as a receiver.
Previous Articles In This Series
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – QB Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – WR Antonio Brown
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – WR Emmanuel Sanders
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – TE Heath Miller
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – T Marcus Gilbert
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – G David DeCastro
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – G Ramon Foster
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – T Kelvin Beachum
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – RB Le’Veon Bell
Steelers End Of Season Player Exit Meetings – C Fernando Velasco