The last time David Johnson lined up with the Steelers' offense he was a 265-pound full-time fullback. Now, after major knee surgery and a year's worth of rehabilitation, Johnson is back at tight end, the position he played when he entered the league in 2009.
The only difference is he will be doing it 10 pounds lighter.
Johnson was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list Wednesday morning and took part in the afternoon practice. The added depth at tight end was a welcome sight for coach Mike Tomlin, who is awaiting the return of starter Heath Miller, who also is rehabilitating a major knee injury, and reserve Matt Spaeth, who is out for at least another six weeks with a foot injury.
David Paulson, a second-year player from Oregon, started the first two preseason games, but he is known more for his pass-catching abilities than his ability to run block.
Johnson is just the opposite. He is known as a blocker, but one of the questions facing him after his year away from the game is whether he can continue to be effective in that role at a lighter weight.
"It kind of just happened from rehabbing so much every day and working out," Johnson said of the weight loss. "I just leaned up like this. I wasn't purposely trying to lose weight. I was watching what I was eating and working out every day. This is how I ended up.
"I mostly rely on technique for blocking. I'm pretty sure when the season starts I'll gain 5-10 pounds back, so it's not going to be a problem."
Johnson, who started 24 games over his first three seasons with the Steelers, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the first preseason game last year. He also had arthroscopic surgery on the same knee earlier this month to remove scar tissue that had been preventing him from getting full extension in his leg.
Once that problem was eliminated, he made quick progress. After making sure his knee was sound and his conditioning level was high, doctors gave him the clearance to practice.
"It's been a long road, a lot of training and a lot of dedication," he said. "I kept my faith and kept going at it every day. Every day, I felt better and better. I was just glad today to be able to be able to make it through one practice."
Johnson said he will concentrate only on playing tight end, the position he favors, but he would be amenable to playing fullback if the coaches asked him to do it.
There is no reason for Johnson to practice at fullback at the moment, however, because Will Johnson, a second-year player out of West Virginia, took hold of that position last season and has a firm grip on the starting job.
Johnson said there is a chance he will play in the Steelers' third preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs Saturday night at Heinz Field. He doesn't think there will be much of a readjustment period for him going back to tight end fulltime.
"It's kind of like riding a bike," he said. "It's natural. I've been playing tight end my whole life. Once I got back in there, I felt right back at home."
Officials at practice
After his offensive line was penalized four times in the first half Monday night at Washington, Tomlin promised he would bring officials to practice this week in hopes of rectifying the problems that unit is having.
The referees officiated in team drills and one-on-one pass protection drills involving the offensive and defensive linemen.
"It helps prepare us for the game," right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. "You have no control over what the referees will call in a game. The best thing we could do is bring in officials to help us carry that over into the game and put ourselves in a better situation."
Thomas coming on
Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas made his presence felt Monday night. He finished as the team's leading tackler with six stops and forced a fumble.
For Thomas, a fourth-round pick from Syracuse, the improvement stems from feeling more comfortable in the defense. He said starting safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark have been helping him digest the complexities of coordinator Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense.
"Read your keys, that's a big thing," Thomas said. "If you can't read your keys, you can't play well. In the first game, I wasn't reading my keys, coming down late. [Against the Redskins], I was just reading my keys and being me."
Ray Fititpaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published August 22, 2013 4:00 AM