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David Johnson becoming more than a blocking TE for the Steelers

At a time when the Steelers need more at tight end, old hand David Johnson is emerging. That and much more from Jon Ledyard.

They say the third time is the charm, something Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Johnson certainly hopes is true.

Drafted by the organization in 2009, Johnson missed only one game in three seasons prior to tearing an ACL before the 2012 season. He was waived/injured and re-signed before the 2013 season.

However, after five games in 2013, Johnson injured his wrist and again had his season finished.

The San Diego Chargers signed him for the 2014 season and he began to return to the player he once was.

His contract expired last March and he signed a third contract with the Steelers, who are starting to see him become the blocker and receiver they had once envisioned.

“I think D.J. is running great routes right now,” said backup QB Bruce Gradkowski. “Better than I’ve ever seen him. It’s just such a compliment to him how hard he’s been working.”

Mike Tomlin noted the same during practice the other day, remarking on how well Johnson’s routes have developed since his last stint in Pittsburgh.

The stocky tight end hasn't made much of a mark as a receiver with just 24 career catches, but if Johnson can give the Steelers an adequate underneath option in the passing game it'll complement his primary role as a blocker.

With Xavier Grimble struggling with consistency and Ladarius Green still on the P.U.P. list, Johnson’s strengths look more and more valuable every day.

“D.J. was coming off a significant knee injury when I was last here with him,” Gradkowski said. “The way he’s gotten his body in shape … it’s a compliment to a guy when you see him transform himself physically and be in shape. That’s working hard, especially coming off an injury. I think he’s done a great job, and it’s great to have him back.”


- Bud Dupree, Travis Feeney, Canaan Severin and Ryan Shazier sat out of practice today. Dupree worked a little on the sled with Markus Wheaton, who was in pads but very limited today. William Gay did little despite donning his shoulder pads.

- Artie Burns began practice as the first-team right cornerback, but bowed out early. Tomlin had no explanation. "I don't micromanage the position groups," he said.

-. Green typically comes down and catches passes on the jugs machine before doing his rehab running with a trainer, but he wasn't on the field today.

- Burns wasn’t out there for many snaps today, but you only need a few reps against Antonio Brown to have your day ruined. During seven shots Brown beat him soundly for a touchdown, one play after Darrius Heyward-Bey had slipped behind Burns for a score (that GM Kevin Colbert called an incompletion because he said DHB didn't get the second foot down). In 1v1s, Burns mugged Brown, holding the receiver with both hands, yet the Steelers' star still made the grab in the back of the end zone. Brown unleashed a verbal tirade in Burns' direction, which the rookie absorbed while walking dejectedly off the field. Brown didn't appear angry, just chirping aggressively to let Burns know what he’s up against at this level. Message received.

- Burns did make one nice play in 1v1s against Demarcus Ayers. He jammed his fellow rookie at the line of scrimmage, forced him into an outside release, then ran the route with Ayers, curling back to the ball for an interception.


- Isaac Blakeney is really unrefined as a route runner, and not as physical as his size would suggest, really struggles to separate but his catch radius was evident when the 6-6 receiver went back shoulder to snag an off-target throw with a smooth adjustment.

- This was Levi Norwood’s best day. He made a couple of quality high-point catches and showed good burst in his releases.

- Doran Grant had what was easily his best practice of training camp. He locked down Heyward-Bey a couple of times, showing some nice click-and-close to get his hands on a few throws. He even blanketed Brown on one rep during team drills, although the receiver of course caught it anyway.

- Jordan Dangerfield flips his hips too late too often, looking to break on something underneath all the time. That's dangerous if he’s the last line of defense.

- Montell Garner can be too aggressive at times, reacting to the receiver’s first move very demonstratively and then struggling to recover. Ayers and Norwood beat him on different routes with an inside stem and an outside release.

- Ross Cockrell was right with Brown on at least two reps, but it just didn’t matter. I'm still impressed with the improvements I’ve seen from Cockrell in using his hands to re-direct receivers and disrupt timing.

- Grimble made an excellent leaping grab in the end zone during seven shots, then hung on despite taking a massive shot from Shamarko Thomas.

- Shark continues to make plays in the box, showing great vision on one play to fill his lane backside and meet the runner in the hole after the ballcarrier cut back.

- Anthony Chickillo is setting a very physical edge vs. the run, blowing up offensive tackles to force runs back inside. He also embarrassed Jerald Hawkins in 1v1s with a powerful one-arm rush on the first rep, then a stutter-step inside move on the second. If camp ended today, the Miami product would probably be my camp winner.

- Last year in 1v1s, Stephon Tuitt vs. David DeCastro was the matchup to watch, although the defensive end won the majority of the time. This year the tide has turned, as DeCastro has locked up Tuitt during nearly every rep. The fifth-year guard has looked like Pittsburgh’s best offensive lineman during camp.

- Jordan Berry has been the more impressive of the two Steeler punters.

- I’m glad I don’t have to be the Steelers brass when it comes time to cut at least one, maybe two, of L.J. Fort, Steven Johnson and Tyler Matakevich. All three stand out every practice. Johnson had a big goal-line stick of Jesse James on a shovel pass during seven shots today, and Matakevich skied to intercept Landry Jones during 11v11. Fort has probably had the best camp of the trio, but preseason games will be a major indicator of who makes the final 53.

- Landry Jones had his best practice of the season despite the interception, throwing two gorgeous seam routes to Ayers and Grimble.

- Not to beat a dead horse, but Dustin Vaughan was wild today, as several of his passes didn’t land in anyone’s vicinity. During seven shots from the two-yard line, Vaughn threw 10 yards out of bounds over everyone’s head, despite having Jake Phillips wide open underneath on a slant route. Unfortunately for the Steelers, Gradkowski hasn’t been much better.

- Sammie Coates received praise from receivers coach Richard Mann for coming back strong to the ball on a curl route, setting up a nifty fake on the recovering corner to pick up a few yards after the catch. Just another detail element of Coates’ game that has improved this offseason.

- Cody Wallace just isn’t a practice player. After watching him get whooped in 1v1s by Tuitt and Devaunte Sigler, that’s my rationale and I’m sticking to it.

- Vince Williams, playing first team defense in place of Shazier today, was absolutely unblockable during the first 11v11. Wreaking havoc everywhere, even defending Le’Veon Bell well down the sideline on a vertical route, although the pass was underthrown.

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