Ask Andrea: The AFC North Mailbag

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVAugust 10, 2012

David Johnson was set to figure into the Steelers' offense more than he has in the past; that's all over now that he's torn his ACL, ending his season.
David Johnson was set to figure into the Steelers' offense more than he has in the past; that's all over now that he's torn his ACL, ending his season.Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

This is the first real week of preseason football here in the AFC North (and in the entire NFL, I suppose), but nevertheless, we have a fairly light Ask Andrea AFC North Mailbag today. This is fine, of course; the three questions featured today all have significance for the actual, regular-season football times that are about to befall us in just about one month.

If you want to send in a question for the Mailbag, you need to be following me on Twitter. There's a button at the bottom of this column that will allow you to do just that.

Trent Richardson's Thursday arthroscopic surgery, performed by Dr. James Andrews (who also fixed his torn meniscus back in February), was a complete success. It was to clean up some remaining scar tissue, likely related to the earlier injury and surgery. As long as recovery and rehab stays on track, Richardson should be able to play in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles.

That's all very good news, but I am sure it also does little assuage your fears (and the fears of fellow Browns fans) that this may just be the beginning of a long process of injury, surgery, return, repeat.

A good sign that this may not be a recurrent problem is the fact that all throughout minicamps, OTAs and the first half of training camp, Richardson was on the field looking 100 percent healthy and showing no signs of injury.

The only thing that tipped him and the team off that something may be amiss is a bit of soreness, and the scar tissue removal is a surgery that could have been put off until the end of the season without any detrimental effects to his quality of play.

But no, it's never good and never ideal that your star running back, your first-round, third overall pick has to undergo knee surgery just days before the first preseason contest. However, this clean up procedure that Richardson just underwent isn't serious, in terms of the spectrum of knee surgeries, and he could very well be injury free for seasons to come.

At the very least, it could mean more limited carries and especially pass targets in the first few weeks of the season, but I don't think at this point the surgery will result in him getting less on-field time than Montario Hardesty to start the year.

It's not great that the Pittsburgh Steelers lost hybrid tight end/fullback/h-back David Johnson to a season-ending knee injury in Thursday's first preseason game.

Johnson, at least according to head coach Mike Tomlin's comments in this week's press conference, was going to be used as both an h-back, catching passes, as much as he was going to be utilized as a traditional blocking tight end. And you could tell, prior to his injury, that offensive coordinator Todd Haley had been very interested in what Johnson could contribute to the team's new-look quick passing offense.

In terms of lead blocking, the Steelers have just one other fullback on the roster, the undrafted Will Johnson. Johnson has a lot of upside—speed and strength—but hadn't proven enough on the field to surpass David. As such, the Steelers will probably bring another fullback into camp to compete for the job next week.

David's duties could thus either fall to Will or to that other fullback. His reps will also likely be spread out to other players, including tight ends Heath Miller and Leonard Pope and running back/receiver Chris Rainey among them, depending on the assignment.

It's an unfortunate situation, however, it's not in any sense a death blow to the Steelers' offense that David's out for the year.

For now, it looks like Kaluka Maiava and rookie James-Michael Johnson will be the replacements for Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong, with the battle presently being who will go where.

Most likely, it looks like Maiava will take over for Fujita on the weak side for the first three games of the season, with Gocong's strong side job will go to Johnson or a rotation of Maiava, Johnson and fellow rookie Emmanuel Acho, based on the situation.

Johnson is more of a run-stopper who isn't terribly fast and won't be used in the blitz. Maiava is a bit more experienced in the pass rush; Acho, too, is strong when it comes to the pass rush and is adept at blitzing.

It may be a linebacker-by-committee approach after Fujita returns in Week 4. But to start the season, it looks as though Johnson and Maiva will get the nods as starters.

That's all for this week; enjoy this weekend's slate of preseason games and I will be back next week to answer your most burning questions about the AFC North.