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August 23, 2013

NFL: Steelers TE Johnson ready for long-awaited return

PITTSBURGH — The whistle sounded to end practice, and wave upon wave of Pittsburgh Steelers jogged off the field to the comfort of the locker room.

Not David Johnson.

To be honest, the tight end doesn’t jog. Ever. Johnson moves with a deliberateness typically reserved for those with no particular place to go and no incentive to get there early.

While his teammates made a beeline for the shower, Johnson spent an extra 10 minutes going through one-on-one blocking drills in front of coach Mike Tomlin. Physically spent, he strolled toward the locker room while drinking in the moment his career finally reverted back to normal.

Sure, Johnson never doubted he would make it all the way back from the torn ACL in his right knee that sidelined him for more than a year. He’s wise enough to understand, however, that not everybody does.

“I just kept my faith,” said Johnson, who turns 26 Monday. “It got a little frustrating at times but in the end you know that you’re fortunate.”

Barely 72 hours after being activated from the Physically Unable to Perform list while he completed a lengthy rehabilitation, Johnson will likely see his first game action in 380 days when the Steelers host the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday.

While most of his veteran teammates are simply hoping to get through the final days of what has been a particularly physical training camp, Johnson will try to pick up where he left off before one bad step last August against the Philadelphia Eagles changed the course of his football life.

The injury came just as the Steelers were transitioning Johnson from tight end to fullback. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley saw Johnson’s 6-foot-2, 270-pound frame as the perfect road grader for Pittsburgh’s renewed commitment to the running game.

Instead Johnson spent the fall of 2012 in football’s version of purgatory. While the Steelers slogged through an enigmatic 8-8 season, he quietly began the process of putting his knee back together.

Turns out, he had company. Johnson was joined in the training room by rookie linebacker Sean Spence — who saw his left knee ripped to shreds in the preseason finale — and later by tight end Heath Miller. It was miserable, sure. But at least they had each other’s company.

Working out nearly every day, the trio formed what Spence calls a “fraternity.”

“Guys with a knee injury, you want to see what they’re going through, what they’re experiencing, how they got over certain things,” Spence said. “We kind of leaned on each other.”

And pushed each other too.

If they weren’t comparing notes, they were competing to see who could reach their individual benchmarks first. They spent the better part of three weeks isolated from the rest of the Steelers in their own little quarantine. While the other 87 men on the roster slammed into each other to prepare for the regular season, Johnson, Miller and Spence were pulling sleds while running wind sprints or pounding through wearying agility drills designed to test the soundness of their rebuilt joint.

When Johnson was finally given the go-ahead to practice three weeks after a minor procedure to free up scar tissue, it felt like a graduation day of sorts for Miller and Spence too.

“You see DJ activated and it’s encouraging,” Spence said. “Everybody’s got their own path they’ve got to take, but we all want to end up in the same spot.”

Johnson’s return couldn’t come fast enough for the Steelers. While Miller is progressing nicely in his return, he remains vague about any timetable for his return and veteran Matt Spaeth, signed in the offseason, is out for two months at least with a torn ligament in his left foot.

That’s left most of the tight end duties up to second-year player David Paulson and journeyman Jamie McCoy, who is still waiting to catch his first regular season pass since entering the league in 2010.

Unlike Miller and Paulson, Johnson is not exactly a weapon in the passing game. He has just 18 receptions in 47 games. Instead his specialty involves moving the pile forward. While there will be jitters whenever he walks onto the turf at Heinz Field, he expects them to vanish the second he smashes into the guy on the other side of the ball.

It’s something the Steelers need to happen if they want to break out of their preseason malaise. Pittsburgh is winless through two games and is still waiting for the first-team offense to score a touchdown.

The Chiefs haven’t been quite so lethargic. They starters scored 10 points against New Orleans, though new quarterback Alex Smith took a small step back in one half of play last week against San Francisco when he completed just 7 of 16 passes for 62 yards and took three sacks against his old team.

“It’s preseason,” Smith said. “I don’t think anybody in the league goes out there and shows everything they have, but at the same time, you want to execute well. I think Pittsburgh feels the same way.”

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