Throughout the duration of the down time between minicamp and training camp, I spent a lot of time examining some of the changes that the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone or have continued to undergo over the course of this offseason.
In some cases, it’s a particular player being asked to take on a new task, which is just the case with third-year player Will Johnson.
Johnson, a former undrafted free agent who failed to draw any interest during his first year out of college, spent his first two years with the Steelers playing nearly exclusively out of the backfield as a fullback.
Because of the increased use of the up-tempo passing game in conjunction with the no huddle, however, it became difficult for offensive coordinator Todd Haley to adjust on the fly to find ways to get the soft-handed fullback onto the field for more action. After a surprisingly productive rookie season, his stats plummeted last year.
With an eye toward changing that, the Steelers have had Johnson working with the tight ends this offseason, as well as having him attend the tight end meeting rooms, in order to get more accustomed to the position so that the offense can more easily run the no huddle with him on the field.
Of course, playing tight end, or a tight end-like role, isn’t completely foreign to him. He contributed some in that capacity during his college days, but he also did the occasional in-line blocking last year with the Steelers.
For example, if you look back at Le’Veon Bell’s first career touchdown, Johnson is lined up in-line between David Johnson and a motioning Heath Miller on the right sideline, helping to create the alley for the rookie back.
Still, tight end has never been his focus during his career before now, and he is taking the time to learn the nuances of the position now to get ready for the regular season. And he knows he’s got a lot to learn:
It’s all about learning the new position and working at tight end, mastering the technique and picking up the little things, the details of that position. For me the biggest thing in camp will be learning that position.
I got a good jump on it in OTAs and learning the playbook. It will be good to get the pads on and block from that position. I haven’t done much of it. We’ll see how it goes, I am excited.
Johnson will still be the team’s fullback, as evidenced by Alex Kozora’s observations from the first day of training camp, and his role as a blocker there has helped him get accustomed to the blocking assignments of a tight end.
It’s the size of those he has to block, and the tight end routes, he says, that will take the most getting used to: “It’s more learning the routes and blocking bigger guys if it gets to that point. Once you learn the playbook and feel comfortable you can play fast. That is what I want to work on in camp”.