PITTSBURGH (AP) — When the Pittsburgh Steelers asked David Johnson to convert from tight end to fullback full-time in time for the 2012 season, the burly 270-pound Johnson's first thought was "I need to go on a diet."
A couple months and 20 pounds later, Johnson is embracing a move that could extend the former seventh-round pick's NFL career indefinitely.
To be honest, the decision came as a bit of relief for Johnson. He spent last season meeting and practicing with the tight ends all week only to be thrown into the backfield as a lead blocker in goal line situations with little preparation.
"Last year, he was just trying to hit it on the fly," tight end Heath Miller said.
Now Johnson — who will keep the No. 85 — sits in meetings trying to absorb as much of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's playbook as he can while getting a feel for what his role will look like when the season starts in September.
"It's actually a little bit easier," Johnson said. "That's all I've got to learn now is fullback. At first I had to know both tight end positions and fullback. Now I just focus on fullback and just create my better habits on that and become the best at it."
The position, once a mainstay, has been phased out by most teams in favor of three-receiver sets even in Pittsburgh. The spot has been vacant since Dan Kreider left the team following the 2007 season as former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians opted for a more pass-heavy attack.
While Haley still plans to let quarterback Ben Roethlisberger do his thing, he also wants to give Pittsburgh's running game a physical presence it has lacked at times since Jerome Bettis' retirement following the 2005 season.
Haley utilized a fullback expertly while head coach Kansas City from 2009-11. Tim Castille helped pave the way for the Chiefs to lead the NFL in rushing while winning an unlikely AFC West title in 2010. The team then signed Le'Ron McClain last season, with the former All-Pro keeping Kansas City productive despite a rash of injuries.
Johnson will try to do the same for a backfield missing Rashard Mendenhall, who remains out indefinitely as he comes back from a torn ACL in his right knee.