Collier: Carries for FB Johnson are gaining ground

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Not that your attention span ever wobbles on these matters, but watch closely as the Steelers operate against the Kansas City Chiefs tonight at Heinz Field because there are a lot of crazy things going on right now within Todd Haley's offense.

A week ago against the New York Giants, for example, I swore I saw a straight handoff to a fullback.

Narcolepsy most likely.

Must have been part of that dream where Rocky Bleier is outside your house waiting to take you to Primanti's and he picks up Franco Harris on the way.

Just me?

Look, seriously, the Steelers handed the ball to a fullback against the Giants, Will Johnson. It's right there in the official first quarter play-by-play:

1-10-PIT35 (6:20)(Shotgun) W. Johnson left tackle to PIT 37 for 2 yards (O.Umenyiora, L.Joseph).

Johnson confirmed it.

"Yeah, 2 yards," he smiled. "It was in the game plan, but I was still excited when they called it, 'Flex right, 25.' "

But it's not the 2 yards, it's the rarity. The Steelers do not hand off the ball to the fullback. More commonly, they don't even have one. Seeing a handoff to a fullback around here is like seeing a bear leaning against your car.

Then Charlie Batch told me Johnson had a carry against Cincinnati a month ago as well. Must have been writing at that time in that night game. Also true. Two carries for the fullback, same season.

"My position coach [Kirby Wilson] is always teasing me about it," Johnson said. "Both times I carried he said, 'You know, that's your last carry.' "

Unofficially, you've got to go back seven years to find a Steelers fullback with more than two carries. Couldn't find any a year ago, or in 2010, or in '09, or in '08, as former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians disdained the breed. Dan Kreider carried once in '07, once in '06, three times in '05.

But the far less trivial aspect of all this isn't just that Haley wants to employ a fullback, it's that the coaching staff isn't afraid to hand it to Johnson, undrafted, unsigned, undaunted Johnson. The coaches aren't afraid to hand it to him, throw it to him in the end zone (he scored a touchdown against Washington), and most certainly not afraid to let him stand in the backfield and protect Ben Roethlisberger or run interference for a stable of running backs.

When Isaac Redman galloped for 147 yards against New York, it marked the first time in five years around here that the Steelers had a 100-yard performance by a running back in three consecutive games (Jonathan Dwyer had the other two).

Coincidence that this happened with a fullback in the house?

"I just want to keep showing the coaches that I can handle things," Johnson said.

Every single NFL team was fairly certain that he couldn't when he came out of West Virginia as exclusively a pass catcher the year before last. Worse, no NFL team saw enough in him to even sign him as a free agent. Johnson got a job, got another job, got a third job, and started working out again. First he worked out at a Crossfit franchise near Charlotte, N.C., and later did the heaviest lifting at another franchise in his hometown of Centerville, Ohio, but in between he trained at John Schneider's franchise in Verona.

Schneider, a Morningside guy going on 15 years as a Marine with two tours of duty in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, surely has come across an expansive list of impressive people, but Johnson got a roster spot there, too.

"The thing that impressed me with him was just that, with a lot of athletes they just rely on their natural ability to get by, but not him," Schneider said. "He wanted to be sure he was excelling at every aspect of his training."

By the time Johnson petitioned for and got permission to participate in West Virginia's pro day, a year after his eligibility expired, he was ready to impress everybody. Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert got a look at his 30 reps at lifting 225 pounds and his 4.49 40-yard dash time and figured this might be a football player.

"He's a really nice guy," Schneider said. "Still humble and hard-working. His work ethic is tremendous."

You might have absorbed some of that on Johnson's touchdown a couple of weeks ago. An easy toss from Roethlisberger, a simple catch as Johnson curled out of the backfield from the Redskins 2, but it's hard to imagine the emotion associated with Johnson's arduous trip from total rejection to that Heinz Field end zone.

He allowed himself an emphatic spike, but no dance.

He's pretty much all business. The towel twirlers are warming to him quickly. They hope he keeps doing this stuff around here long enough to get, what 12, 15 carries?

That should take him through, like, 2018.

mobilehome - genecollier

Gene Collier: First Published November 12, 2012 5:00 AM


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