By Chris Adamski
A trimmer David Johnson is out to seek and destroy.
More than he ever has in his professional career, Johnson will use his “eyes” when it comes to blocking and other duties.
One of the more intriguing effects of the arrival of Todd Haley as the Steelers’ new offensive coordinator was the reintroduction of a true fullback in the offense. Technically, Johnson was the team’s starting “fullback” last season — but that positional designation requires quotation marks because, in effect, Johnson was a fullback in name only. He was not the traditional definition of the position NFL had gotten accustomed to over decades.
Former coordinator Bruce Arians gradually phased out the fullback in its generally-accepted form. Yes, Johnson started games, and more often than not, he was listed as the fullback. But, more often than not, he’d be on the line by the time the ball was snapped. At best, it would have been more fair to characterize Johnson as the proverbial “H-back” in the past.
Johnson’s role has changed dramatically this season.
“It’s a lot different. It’s a lot of eyes,” the fourth-year player said. “The guy (you’re blocking) is not directly in front of you, both of you are all running full speed at each other. You’re weaving through the lines, so you’ve got to have a lot of eyes, technique and leverage.”
Johnson fairly giggles when asked if he’s enjoying the new role — he laughs even harder when it’s suggested he could steal carries away from the likes of Isaac Redman.
“Not many,” he says.
That doesn’t mean he won’t get his hands on the ball. Obviously, Johnson has more-than-adequate hands. He had 12 receptions and a touchdown last season for Pittsburgh and had five touchdown catches as a senior at Arkansas State before becoming a seventh-round draft pick in 2009.
Down about 15 pounds from last season, Johnson looks trimmer in street clothes and on the field. He still wears No. 85, but his training regimen is more centered around quickness and agility than it is on size and power. Johnson is listed at 260 pounds.
“A lot of work on my footwork and technique and a lot of knee-bending,” Johnson said. “Explosive-type things that I never really worked on before. Just being around the backs, they’re helping me with my moves and getting quicker and everything. It’s really helped me out a whole lot.”
Johnson got to show off his new skills and his “new” position during Saturday’s practice because it was time for the annual goal-line drill.
On the first snap of what was an abbreviated exercise because of impending rain, Johnson was at his attacking, full-speed-ahead blocking best. He met veteran linebacker Larry Foote head-on, winning a slight decision in a violent collision, falling forward in a block. Jonathan Dwyer initially was ruled to have scored a touchdown as a result, although the “score” was ultimately “overturned.”
“I always look forward to goal line,” Johnson said. “Any time as an offensive line or a fullback you’re right there, that close to the end zone, it doesn’t matter if you’re dog tired, you’re going to give it all you’ve got just to get that one-yard score.”
It’s just that now, Johnson uses more “eyes.”
Other notes from Saturday’s practice:
**By Tomlin’s count, the defense won the goal-line contest, which was a series of seven plays run from the 1 1/2-yard line.
** Here’s the daily Ben Injury Panic news: Roethlisberger left practice after someone stepped on his foot. Tomlin confirmed he’s fine.
**Linebackers Ryan Baker and Brandon Johnson have ankle injuries. Tomlin didn’t expand much on their severity.
**Guard Willie Colon (ankle) and running back Isaac Redman (groin) did not practice the day after sustaining minor injuries in the night practice at Greater Latrobe High School. Redman indicated his was not serious, and Tomlin downplayed the significance of Colon’s ailment.
**Ramon Foster moved over to left guard in Colon’s stead, with rookie David DeCastro sliding into the first team at right guard. “He’s doing a nice job of representing himself,” Tomlin said of the first-round pick.
**The second round pick also was running with the first-team offensive line during much of practice Saturday. Mike Adams was at left tackle ahead of Trai Essex.
**Receiver Emmanuel Sanders had quite a day during practice, catching at least four “touchdown” passes from different spots on the field, all on different routes and each showing a different skill set.