The past few games, the running game has been slightly more productive. One could argue that the offensive line is blocking better – you would be wrong. One could argue that Mendenhall is fighting for more yards – you would be dead wrong. I believe it to be something else entirely – David Johnson has learned how to block.
I think one could argue that Steelers offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, was very calculated in shifting this offense from a run heavy offense to a pass heavy offense.
Exhibit A: The release of FB Dan Kreider back in 2007/2008 after being shelved due to a torn ACL. Carey Davis replaced Kreider who was then replaced by Sean McHugh who was then released in 2010. I remember Davis a little bit. I can’t even think of McHugh’s name on a jersey on the field the last two seasons. Just goes to show that they were putting in guys who didn’t really fit the bill as FB.
Then enter David Johnson last season (he was on the roster in 2009 but mainly subbed in on TE formations). He is listed as the team’s FB but was drafted as a TE and often lines up there. By using a TE as a FB sometimes, it allows Arians to use 2-3 TE sets for running the ball. Problem is Johnson could hold back defenders about as well as a Walmart attendee on Black Friday. Every time I would see Johnson lined up in the FB slot, I would retort, ‘What’s the point?’ But Arians wants to use Johnson as a blocker who can catch. We should all get it out of our heads very quickly that guys like Spaeth and Johnson would never amount to anything like Heath Miller. Miller is a fantastic blocker who has the greatest TE hands – better than Gates. Lately, however, Johnson’s stock has been on the rise.
The Steelers are averaging over 125 yards rushing over the last three games, opposed to the 114 for the season. A slight increase, but I think it’s a significant rise given the play calling from Arians and the execution from their main carrier, Mendenhall. Both games with Cincy and Cleveland had some key runs as a direct result from David Johnson. Whether it’s his foot speed, technique or both, Johnson has been able to seal the edge or find the free LB and take him out of the play. I know I’ve been hard on him before with his inability to catch easy throws from Big Ben sometimes, and he has missed key blocks throughout the season. But, perhaps he is really starting to settle into this dual role he’s absurdly being asked to fill. On Thursday’s game, I can remember a block off the edge he had on Chris Gocong where you could hear the ‘pop’ over the TV. I thought, ‘Woah! Was that actually Johnson making that hit off the edge!?’ Indeed it was, and I found myself paying more and more attention to where he was on the field and what he was doing.
I don’t think Johnson will ever be able to replace a Dan Kreider. If he can continue to improve, he may prove very valuable for those times that the Steelers decide to run the ball. Now if we could just improve those hands, Johnson could be a receiving threat as well. Not as good as Daryl ‘Moose’ Johnston, but just one more set of hands for Ben to check down to on a passing play. I’m glad to see him going better. He’s a young guy (24) and could have a bright future here in the ‘Burgh.