Steelers tight end Johnson passes first test
David Johnson, a year removed from a career-threatening knee injury, jogged onto Heinz Field on Saturday night without most of the 51,852 fans acknowledging his return.
But the Steelers' soft-spoken tight end was fine with the absence of fanfare.
Johnson, who missed all of last season after severely injuring his right knee in the preseason opener at Philadelphia, considers himself blessed to have lined up in the trenches against Kansas City.
After all, he limped through much of training camp at St. Vincent. He methodically worked his way back with a grueling rehabilitation regimen that challenged his aspirations to suit up again.
On his first snap from scrimmage in nearly 13 months, Johnson fired off the ball without hesitation. He didn't pancake the defender, yet he scaled the first hurdle by relying on his athleticism instead of instinctively guarding his knee from contact.
“I'm a positive person,” said Johnson, who started all 16 regular-season games in 2011. “I wasn't thinking negatively about my knee. I don't see what good comes from that. I figured since I was out there, I might as well give it all I got.
“I had a good week of practice, so I knew I had a good chance of playing. It was important for me not think about the knee, but just play.”
Johnson's comeback inspired Pro Bowl tight end Heath Miller, who last December suffered a similar knee injury that has him sidelined indefinitely.
“I'm really happy for him,” Miller said. “I think we've all seen first-hand the hard work he's put in to get back to this point. It's a huge step in the process of helping the team out.”
For Miller, Johnson's comeback is inspiring.
“In my mind, it was never a question of whether I would come back or not,” Miller said. “I always trusted I'll be back on the field, but watching (Johnson) I realize I can do it sooner rather than later.”
Johnson, who had 12 catches in 2011, had his knee heavily wrapped in ice after playing his last series early in the fourth quarter. He removed the ice pack at the end of regulation to test the knee's mobility.
He said there was no discomfort, but added he's not at the end of his road to recovery.
“They just wanted to get my feet wet a little bit — that's what tonight was about,” he said.
Johnson, who turns 26 on Monday, said he expects to be ready for the season opener against Tennessee at Heinz Field on Sept. 8.
“It's what we're shooting for, so I practiced this week to get everything going back mentally and gaining confidence,” Johnson said.
The Steelers are hoping Johnson doesn't suffer a setback, mostly because they're thin at tight end with Miller and Matt Spaeth, who is expected to miss eight to 10 weeks with a Lisfranc sprain.
“We are low on tight ends right now and Heath is still working on his comeback,” Johnson said. “So, it just felt good to get in there and start to get things going.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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