PITTSBURGH – Larry Foote missed Wednesday’s practice with a sore ankle, and the thinking around the Steelers’ locker room is that Foote was merely given a day off so that his backup could receive much-needed time at the buck linebacker position.
That’s the thinking, but it might also be a prayer.
Foote’s backup is Brandon Johnson, who’s not only new to the team, he’s new to the position as well as the entire 3-4 scheme.
Johnson played outside linebacker behind Elvis Dumervil at the University of Louisville, and then he played weak-side outside linebacker with the Arizona Cardinals and Cincinnati Bengals for six NFL seasons.
Because of his skill on special teams, he was signed by the Steelers in June and they listed the 6-5, 245-pounder as an outside linebacker.
But when Stevenson Sylvester got hurt at training camp, Johnson received some time at inside linebacker. And when the Steelers’ other backup inside linebacker, Sean Spence, was injured in the final preseason game, Johnson became the team’s only backup inside linebacker.
So if Foote for some reason can’t play Sunday, Johnson becomes the defensive signal-caller as the buck linebacker in his very first game with the Steelers.
“It’s tough learning three positions,” Johnson said of both inside spots and left outside linebacker. “But the hardest one is probably the buck because you have to make all the calls. And when you’re the guy making all the calls, the pressure’s on you.”
Yesterday, Johnson was used solely at the buck, a position James Farrior once claimed took him years to master.
“It was bittersweet,” Johnson said of his performance Wednesday. “I did some things good and some things bad – bitter and sweet.”
Could he perform the buck duties this week if he had to?
“I think I could, especially with guys like Troy (Polamalu) and the other veterans in the game,” Johnson said. “They’ll probably pick up the slack at some point in time. I would just be out there trying to make sure it’s not my fault, whatever happens.”
With Baron Batch limited by an injured groin, the rest of the Steelers’ running backs took turns with the first team Wednesday, and none of them really knows what coach Mike Tomlin has in mind for Sunday’s game.
“I’m just preparing for whatever,” said Jonathan Dwyer. “I’m just excited to play.”
“We all just switched in and out every play,” said Isaac Redman, who’s been hobbled a bit by an ankle injury. “I’m not 100 percent, but I feel pretty good.”
Rashard Mendenhall said his knee responded well to Monday’s workout, but that he, too, has no idea whether he’s going to play or not.
Dwyer did give a hint by admitting that he carried first (“somewhat”) in team scrimmages. The third-year back who missed last season’s Denver game with a broken foot was asked what his gut is telling him about Sunday night.
“My gut’s just telling me to be prepared for whatever, to get ready to have some fun, and to play the best game I possibly can,” Dwyer said.
THE NECK? THE KNEE?
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was able to have some fun back in July with questions about his recovery from a neck injury that cost him the 2011 season.
“I have no concern over that,” Manning told ESPN’s Tom Jackson. “I’m not begging James Harrison to blindside me by any means but I feel I’m going to be able to handle it.”
Manning added: “So, James, I love you and don’t take this as a challenge now. Go easy on me if you can.”
Yesterday, Manning wasn’t nearly as playful when asked about his neck (“It’s fine”) and whether it was tested this preseason (“That was not a factor”) and whether there was any apprehension on his part (“There’s not.”)
Harrison wasn’t playful with reporters, either. He ended a brief session in Pittsburgh with “Peace out. Out of my face.”
Harrison was limited in Wednesday’s practice and said he’ll talk about his injured knee on Friday. Tomlin told Denver reporters, “(Harrison) came in today and was no worse for the wear. … His availability is going to be based on how he feels following some cumulative work over the course of the week.”