Five of the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ league leading six Super Bowl titles were won at a time when the franchise was built on hardnosed football. Or, at least what is commonly accepted as hardnosed football. You see, the definition of hardnosed football back then was physicality on defense and a commitment to tough running between the tackles on offense. In today’s NFL ,that is generally considered a losing formula.
While the dominant defense remains, the team no longer focuses on a feature back behind the quarterback. Instead of relying on a Franco Harris or Jerome Bettis, the Steelers most important play makers now reside outside the numbers as Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders become more and more important within the structure of the offense.
That, of course, is a reflection on the growth and development of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He isn’t the type of quarterback who is going to methodically move his team down the field with short passes. Instead, Roethlisberger best fits in a balanced offense.
For a balanced offense, the Steelers need dynamic players littered throughout. Their receivers are more than capable blockers, after learning from maybe the greatest ever blocking wide receiver, Hines Ward. The offensive line was revamped in the off-season to significantly improve its ability to both pass protect and run block, while Chris Rainey and Baron Batch(returning from injury) gave the team two new options as third down backs.
Entering this season, the Steelers were still struggling to find one final piece for their offense. In fact, ever since Bettis retired and fullback Dan Kreider fell by the wayside, the Steelers had been looking for that final piece. Not until David Johnson arrived in the seventh round of the 2009 draft as a converted tight end did the Steelers even identify the type of skill-set they were looking for in their new fullback.
Johnson wasn’t overly impressive in his role as a run blocker/receiver out of the backfield, but he did do enough to earn consistent playing time. Johnson held down his role with the team until this year, when he tore his ACL prior to the beginning of the regular season.
He was competing for his starting spot with an undrafted namesake of his, Will Johnson, who received little to no interest coming out of West Virginia before joining the Steelers in training camp. Will was a tight end at West Virginia, but didn’t excel in that role. As soon as the Steelers brought him in, he became a fullback and began to flourish. Johnson’s early performances in individual drills began to crank up the pressure on David and once preseason began.
Will wasn’t playing like an undrafted free agent. Pre-season wasn’t overwhelming for him and his comfort level on the field was like that of a first round draft pick, or even a veteran, all despite not playing the position in college or being a highly thought of talent.
Once David went down with an injury, Will seized his opportunity and continued those composed performances into the regular season. Fulfilling a role that isn’t overly celebrated, even by his team’s own fans, doesn’t receive any real acclaim. Yet Will’s performances have still been very important.
Will is consistently winning at the point of attack against defenders in the running game, but has also caught every single pass that has been thrown his way. Even more importantly for the Steelers, he has only allowed one quarterback hurry on eight snaps in pass protection. While those eight don’t seem significant, those are eight snaps where Will has stepped into a role previously filled by Heath Miller. Instead of pass protecting, Miller has been a leading receiver for the Steelers this year.
Will may be a role player, but championships are built on role players who excel in their roles. For years the Steelers have won championships on the backs of players like Will who have done precisely this. From Mewelde Moore‘s incredibly play as a third down back in 2008, back to Antwaan Randle El‘s gadget contributions in 2005, this converted tight end will be hoping to become the next in a line of great Steelers’ contributions.
Hold on, maybe I shouldn’t use the word great. He is just a role player after all…
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, Balls.ie and the Guardian. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf