While the re-signing of sixth-year inside linebacker Steven Johnson may have come as a surprise to many, the fact that it coincided with the Pittsburgh Steelers waiving safety Jordan Dangerfield with an injury designation does help to bring the decision into perspective.
Dangerfield was an important contributor on special teams. Johnson is going to fill that void—assuming that he dresses. That was not the case at the start of last season, it is worth noting, so his playing time can vary, but it is also important to point out that he was a very active presence on special teams in the games in which he did play before he was injured.
While it would be hard to deny that L.J. Fort outplayed him on the field on defense during the preseason, even before he suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the final two games, Johnson was shown to be the better special-teams player last year.
In fact, you might recall that when Ladarius Green was activated from the Physically Unable to Perform List, the Steelers ended up releasing Fort because Johnson surpassed him for game-day playing time. Of course, he ended up suffering a season-ending injury the next game, resulting in Fort being re-signed.
Still, sorting out the roster, it will be difficult to find him a helmet. Predictable inactives would be Joshua Dobbs, Daniel McCullers, Jerald Hawkins, and Matt Feiler, but it gets less clear from there. Perhaps Justin Hunter, Brian Allen as well. The final inactive likely comes from among the 10 linebackers, of which the top choices would be Johnson, Fort, and Arthur Moats.
All three of them are supposed to be able to contribute on special teams, but chances are only two will dress. And it is also worth noting that one more player still needs to be released. Chances are it will come from among those in this inactive list, which will certainly not help Johnson dress. He could even be the one who gets released.
But they do know what he can offer on special teams, and I might be inclined to think that they would not have bothered to re-sign him at this point if they did not intend for him to be on the roster. Still, somebody will have to be released prior to Sunday’s game in order to activate Le’Veon Bell from his roster-exempt status.
This is probably not something that most people spend a lot of time thinking about, but it will be interesting to see how the first inactive list shapes up, as it will probably give a pretty good indication of how they intend to plan it out for most of the season.
But Johnson was a known and proven commodity on special teams, and once they started giving him a helmet, they couldn’t stop. He recorded six tackles on special teams in addition to forcing a fumble, and did so all in just six games, on top of other contributions that don’t get stats.