The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.
Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.
Because the fifth skill position player on the field can vary significantly depending on the personnel package, whether it’s a third wide receiver, a second tight end, or a fullback, each will be looked at separately. The last position on offense to analyze is the fullback position.
In order to do that, we have to go back to the Bruce Arians offense, in which there was no true fullback. After Arians took over as offensive coordinator in 2007, Dan Kreider lost his starting job to Carey Davis, who was a less traditional player. In spite of coming out in 2004, 2007 was the first time that he got any meaningful playing time, on his fifth team.
As ‘fullback’, Davis did help Willie Parker churn out a healthy chunk of yards, and he was brought back as the starter in 2008, but was replaced midseason by Sean McHugh. While neither player would be mistaken for a start, both David and McHugh performed well under the circumstances, working with a below average offensive line.
Still, the Steelers regularly sought their replacements, which in 2010 was David Johnson. Though he would improve substantially over the next two seasons, that year was a struggle for the college tight end learning to come out of the backfield. He was plagued by inconsistency from game to game, but his role in the offense was fairly minor.
Since 2012, with the switch from Arians to Todd Haley at offensive coordinator, the aversion to a true fullback has been eliminated, but their fullback, Will Johnson, does not fit that mold anyway. David Johnson and Will Johnson were to battle for the job that preseason, but a knee injury for David rendered the competition moot. When he returned in 2013, he was moved to tight end full-time.
Coincidentally, since that time, the Steelers offense has only increasingly become more geared toward throwing the ball, which has stripped the fullback position of some of its value, with the team often relying on the no huddle, which discourages personnel changes.
To that end, Haley has essentially rebuilt Arians’ fullback philosophy, and Johnson took most of his snaps last season lined up at the line of scrimmage. But one can argue that he is still not getting as many looks as he should.
Certainly, out of all of the fullbacks that the Steelers have employed in recent memory, Will Johnson is the most physically gifted, and likely provides the greatest threat as a skill position contributor, yet his opportunities have been limited.
As a blocker, however, he really began to come into his own last season, as he was particularly effective on the move. Still, as a whole, the position that he serves has been devalued within the offense as a whole.