Steelers Moving Will Johnson Around With Eye Toward No Huddle

Pittsburgh Steelers former undrafted free agent Will Johnson found it difficult to break into the league. When he went undrafted in 2011, the league was in a lockout, and that made it far more difficult for him to catch on with a team.

He got a chance to work out at his former university’s Pro Day the next spring, which is where Kevin Colbert saw him, which led to his signing with the team. He later won the starting fullback job as a rookie by default due to injury to his competition.

He had a surprisingly productive season as a rookie fullback, in fact, playing over 350 snaps while catching 15 passes for 137 yards and one touchdown. He also got to tote the rock twice for a total of seven yards.

This led many to predict a bigger sophomore season for the young, athletic h-back, but for whatever reason it never came to fruition.

His playing time was drastically curtailed—in fact, he played less than half the snaps of his rookie season while only missing one game. The way he was used in the passing game even changed, as his targets came from a much shallower depth.

This is borne out by his miniscule 5.1 yards per reception that he managed on eight receptions for 41 yards, though that does include a one-yard touchdown.

The steep drop in playing time and production seems counterintuitive given how frequently he is the subject of praise by the coaching staff during practice for his athleticism and receiving skills, particularly in the linebacker pass catching drills.

Perhaps one reason to account for the third-year fullback’s playing time has to do with the increased usage of the no huddle a year ago.

According to Mark Kaboly’s reckoning, Johnson did not play a single snap while the Steelers were in the no huddle last year, when they tend to use their traditional 11 personnel along with tight end Heath Miller and running back Le’Veon Bell.

One of the issues that the coaching staff has cited with the no huddle over the years is that it limits the rotation of personnel and packages.

Ben Roethlisberger told Kaboly that he believes they only used “maybe two personnel groups” last year, but this summer, they’re working on bringing more variety.

Part of that process has involved sticking Johnson with the tight ends full-time—for now—in order to present him as a more viable option in the no huddle, turning him into a chess piece that they can move around and adapt between running and passing situations.

“I am learning different routes and different reads and hots”, Johnson said for his part. Not that he’s complaining: “Hey, it gets me on the field and gives me a chance to make plays.”

There’s been a lot of talk about the role of the no huddle in this offense for 2014, and frankly it’s way too early to say how much of this could be true. The Joker Johnson experiment could be dead by the time the preseason rolls around.

But if it ever does make it into games, it should only help make the offense more dynamic. Having Johnson in during no huddle situations can keep defenses less sure of whether a run or pass is coming, and it gives him more opportunities to take his lauded receiving skills off the practice field and on to the gridiron.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • steeltown

    Nice. I hope he is used more, he adds a bit of versatility on almost every level

  • steeltown

    Side note: I heard Wheaton, Bryant and J.Brown all caught TD passes yesterday, Wheaton and Bryants were said to be “long touchdown passes” On Defense I heard C.Allen had 2INTs and Spence picked off L.Jones and returned for a TD

  • srdan

    I think BB is as excited as I am to see these young potential playmakers, mixed with some veteran probowlers. And to top it all off, we may have the fastest receiving core in the league.

  • John Hinton

    Good stuff on several fronts.

  • Steelers12328882

    I never bought into the Will Johnson hype last year, and although I think he’s a great athlete and a good FB for us, I don’t see him making a big impact this year either. The WRs aren’t as deep this year, at least to start off the year, and that might help him get on the field more, but The TEs are both healthy now, and with the addition of Blount and Archer I think it devalues Johnson. If Wheaton performs well as the #2 and either Moore or Bryant get a good amount of playing time at WR then it will push the FBs playing time even further down the line.

  • dkoy85

    Thanks for the updates! By chance do you know what WR is wearing #18? I was just on the Steelers website looking at day 1 mini camp pictures and the 13th picture in has him going up for a catch… and I mean WAY up!

  • joed32


  • dkoy85


  • steeltown

    Yea I saw that pic too, I had to look at the roster to see who he was, pretty high vertical

  • dkoy85

    He’s an interesting player. Mel Blount personally recommended him to the Steelers- seems to be pretty high praise. Maybe make the practice squad this year and be a sleeper to make the 53 next? It sure would make for an interesting story.

  • steeltown

    It’s a long road ahead of him. We have some solid practice squad candidates in Kashif Moore, Lanear Sampson and Danny Coale, not to mention J.Brown hasn’t made the 53man roster, yet

  • dgh57

    I agree get W. Johnson the ball a couple a times a game to give these DCs around the League something else to worry about and have to game plan for. I’d use every weapon at my disposal if I was Haley.

  • Kenneth Wilt

    W. Johnson is an interesting threat, but he is only interesting if they actually use his skills to benefit this offense.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    I’m still not convinced a FB is worth cutting one of the bubble guys this year.

  • falconsaftey43

    Who do you want to keep instead? Who will play FB when we need one? Will they be as effective of a lead blocker as W.Johnson? Not saying you’re wrong, but those are definitely questions that need answered.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    I’m not convinced one way or the other.

    I was just saying the roster is going to be so deep this year that cut downs are going to be costly if we stay healthy.

    Keeping a FB, when viewed against the guy we cut might not be the best answer.

    Between Blount and one of the TE’s we can fill the role and we get to keep the bubble guy.

    It will come down to him or a specific player at the end of camp and until then we don’t know. I just don’t think he deserves an automatic spot.

  • HiVul

    If they can’t find more of a use for him this year I think they need to consider if they still have room in the game plan for a FB or if what they actually want is another TE.

  • HiVul

    I did buy into the hype with Will Johnson last year and I was honestly confused to see him so underutilized. To me, it wasn’t so much buying into the hype as it was the reasonable expectation that a younger player would keep growing into his role, adding more production. Not that he was going to blow up, maybe 10 more catches, a few more carries, more snaps, etc.

    I saw him as strategically dynamic, how often do you have a FB and a RB that are both legitimate receiving options? I don’t know, I still think that if he’s the forgotten man again with all the young and inexperienced players we have at skill positions this year, it has to speak somewhat to a lack of creativity by the offensive coaching staff.

  • falconsaftey43

    You need someone to fill that role, even if it is only occasionally. The only competition I see for him is the other TE’s. Miller and Spaeth are locks. You need at least 1 or 2 more TE/FB to fill all the roles needed and have a little injury protection. Are there really two backup TE’s better than WJ? Paulson, Palmer, Blanchflower, Waters are his competition. I’d take WJ at this point.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    If Branchflower is good enough and keeping Johnson means cutting McCullers I could see McCullers playing well enough to cut Johnson.

  • steeltown

    Don’t forget we wont need to carry 4TEs (+FB) like we did a year ago with Miller and Spaeth both healthy now and we technically only have 2RB locks (Bell & Blount) plus Archer.. I think these two factors open up roster spots and should help WJ case for one of those spots

  • Garrett Hunt

    I would like to see a lot of no huddle with Johnson, Bell, and Archer since all are run and pass threats to keep the defense guessing.

  • walter mason

    absolutely. I agree will all u said.

  • walter mason

    We dont have another TE and we only have 3 RBs so Johnson is a lock IMO.

    (I see you are referring to next year)

  • wilsonmjw

    “former University” = WVU

    It’s OK to admit that WVU has placed some some valuable players on the Steelers over the years. : D