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Steelers' Biggest Little Signing

The signing didn't set off bells and whistles in Pittsburgh, but to Craig Wofley this Steeler is an underrated key.

The draft has come and gone and free agency shifts into Stage D, or whatever stage give us your tired, your poor, your rookie minicamp tryouts, but I wanted to bring up a small signing that to me looms large for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and that's the re-signing of TE David Johnson.

Signed shortly after the free agency madness settled in, amidst Landry Jones and others, DJ inked a two-year deal with the Steelers that certainly didn't make many, if any, headlines. But to me, it was an important move.

Drafted in 2009 in the 7th round, I remember David when he first checked into training camp. Though standing only 6-2, he weighed around the 270-280-pound range. His route running was nothing to shout about, neither were his hands in catching the ball. They didn’t betray him, nor did they set him apart from other young TEs. But what David had over other TE’s were ham hocks.

Yeah, there I said it, ham hocks. The prodigious portion of the backside of a man which powers those who excel in, among other things, “moving a man from point A to point B against his will,” to quote the former guru of gurus, Joe Moore.

Whether it was against an outside linebacker in the hit ’em or hook ’em drill, blitzers in backs-on-backers, or practice reps in team, it quickly became noticeable that Johnson was an old school roll-over-the-front-foot-flatbacker. 

David would stick his forehead right into the chin of an opponent, rip-to-rack with his hands getting the inside hand position, and roll his hips through to drive a man off the line of scrimmage. And he did it time and time again. It set him apart from the field of lesser notables.

So, good, he’s got that going for him right? What else has he got? I mean he’s caught less passes in an 8-year career than Heath Miller normally caught in half a season.

At training camp last year, after DJ smoked one of the linebackers in a pass-catching coverage drill, Mike Tomlin said to him, "I see you came back with a few more tricks than you left with." 

David won’t be confused in his role with Jesse James or Jesse’s pass-catching ability, but nobody will confuse Jesse for David in his role in run-blocking, either, for that matter.

David’s good feet and mobility make him perfect for the H-back, the hybrid between a fullback and an in-line TE. David would be set in motion and/or backed off the line of scrimmage and used to wham people or lead on a counter-trap play. This is a set of skills not everyone can or is willing to master. Traps and whams are akin to crash test dummy work. It’s just not for everybody.

Back in the Bruce Arians offenses, when Bruce said he would never employ a regular fullback, DJ became one -- with the accompanying lack of mastery over what a fullback does for a living. And he struggled to play that position, going from the TE meeting room to the RB meeting room. But he got better with every opportunity that was presented to him. Guys like that tend to etch a spot for themselves on any roster.

Part of the problem when you try to block from the fullback position is learning to think like a running back: to understand the blocking scheme unfolding in front of you, be able to read the linebackers and anticipate where they’ll fill, and react. Add to that the knowledge that the RB may not be seeing what you’re seeing, and he may not be helping you by following you and drawing the linebackers into a hitting moment of high intensity collision. It’s like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers adhering to a highly ballistic dance script but making allowances for a little free-wheeling as well. 

In other words, it can get confusing.

David really began to excel in blocking from the fullback position when he became confident in his reading abilities enough to be able to run through guys, rather than the sprint-squat in the hole and try to dig the guy out routine. A one-foot takeoff into a collision (running through a man) is much more preferable to slowing down by gathering yourself to take on a downhill banger from the second level in the hole. 

But that was in the Rashard Mendenhall/Jonathan Dwyer era when the RBs were pretty much straight-ahead-to-cutback type. 

But how do you block for a guy like Le'Veon Bell

That’s a little different, to be sure. Bell doesn’t need blockers to mulch guys as much as he needs them to set picks. And here’s where the personnel factor weighs in.

Number one, get a regular fullback, and the Steelers have one in Rosey Nix. Rosey doesn’t fool around. When he’s the lead blocker on a play, he’s like a guys action movie, a lot of explosives, fists flying and sound effects. Linebackers are more apt to get downhill and meet and greet the thump when they see him in the game.

Number two is using DJ in a more defined role as an H-back. David showed last year that even though he’s dropped some weight from his two years in San Diego, he’s still fully capable of capturing the edge-setter (the end of line defender) and giving Lev a shot at a footrace to the sidelines.

Moreover, because of the ever-increasing influence of Mike Munchak as offensive line coach, and his ability to truly convey the techniques and concepts of the zone blocking scheme, along with the bodies up front that can do it, DJ still excels at being a lead back on counter-traps and the positional rather than power concepts inherent in that scheme. The ability to adjust on the move after sizing up different jersey numbers is an acquired taste.

All in all, David Johnson is a piece of the puzzle that enables Todd Haley to expand conceptually without adding the encumbrance of needless plays that existed back in my day. Back in medieval times, the plays were numbered and the difference between two plays might be that it was one hole over from the other.

Slimming the playbook means deleting plays, defining roles, making plays more conceptually driven than concrete X’s and O’s, all the while streamlining the verbiage. And streamlining the verbiage means slicing seconds off the clock which translates to ever faster communication and game pace. 

Where this gets a bit dazzling to me is that at the same time as you’re trimming down to speed up, you’re attempting to develop the ability to expand conceptually via personnel. Seems to be an ever advancing offensive formula.

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