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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Of all the players responsible for the Pittsburgh Steelers leading the NFL in yards rushing, Will Johnson might be one of the most overlooked.
Running backs Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount, a healthy and improving offensive line and even tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth deserve credit for the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack.
But the third-year pro is quietly taking on a bigger role.
The 6-foot-2, 238-pound Johnson played 27 snaps Sunday at Carolina, some five times more than he did during the opening two games combined. He helped lead the way for Bell and Blount to both top 100 yards in a 37-19 win, the first time in 28 years two Steelers running backs have gone over 100 yards in the same game.
"He might be overlooked by some, but not in this locker room," Steelers offensive guard Ramon Foster said of Johnson. "He's a key contributor to our offense, and he can do a lot of different things."
Bell believed Johnson was the most versatile. Johnson didn't have a rushing attempt last season, but he had eight catches and one touchdown. He ran twice as a rookie in 2012 and added 15 catches for 137 yards and another score.
"He can run the ball," Bell said. "Obviously, he can block, and he can catch passes. So, he's very versatile, and all his hard work in practice obviously carries over into the game."
The Steelers' offensive line had its best game against the Panthers, but the club's running game was buoyed by the scheme that had Miller, Spaeth and Johnson as additional blockers.
"People can talk about the running game being about the front five, but it's just as much about Spaeth, (Michael) Palmer, Heath and Will opening up holes on the outside, getting to the second level and getting the linebackers," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "They're just as much to be praised as the line."
Just as importantly, the Steelers showed they could run the ball when the opponent knew it was coming.
"It sends a message that we're not just going to throw the ball all the time," Johnson said.
"We're going to have a balanced offense, and we're going to come right at you when we want to. So, that's what we did, and when you have two great backs like we do it makes it work so well."
The Steelers' power running game was most evident when Blount was confronted by Carolina defensive back Thomas DeCoud near the goal line and powered past him into the end zone for the score.
Blount believed it was just the capper on a dominant Steelers performance. Johnson helped pave the way, sealing Panthers linebacker Dan Conner and giving Blount a clear lane to the end zone.
"That was great," Johnson said. "I was glad to contribute to a win that way."
Notes: ILB Ryan Shazier (knee) and CB Ike Taylor (right forearm) are out this week, while OG Ramon Foster (ankle) is questionable after being limited Friday. ... All the other players listed on the injury report — WR Darrius Heyeard-Bey (illness), RB Dri Archer (left ankle), Roethlisberger, Miller, SS Troy Polamalu and DE Brett Keisel — were probable. Roethlisberger, Miller, Polamalu and Keisel's limited participation in practice was not injury related. ... Blount was fined $5,500 for tossing the ball into the stands after his touchdown. He will appeal the standard ruling.
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