ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It was nearly a year ago to the day that Deon Cain’s rookie season came to a crashing halt.
It was Thursday, Aug. 9, last year when the Indianapolis Colts’ wide receiver made his preseason debut and ultimately limped off the field with what would later be diagnosed as a torn left ACL in his knee.
For fellow Colts receiver Marcus Johnson, he was in the midst of the most productive game of his career last season in Week 6 — compiling two catches for 52 yards and his first-career touchdown — before a freak ending on a kickoff return caused him to suffer an ankle injury that shelved him for the remainder of the season as well.
Thursday night in the Colts’ first preseason game of 2019, both played in a game for the first time since their injuries, and both had positive contributions in Indy's 24-16 loss to the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field.
Both receivers got in with the second-team offense in the second quarter, and both made their presence known as the Colts pushed to put their first points on the board.
Quarterback Phillip Walker targeted Cain and Johnson heavily — just like we have seen in recent training camp practices — distributing a combined 10 attempts to the two receivers.
Walker looked to Johnson especially on their final drive of the first half, hitting the third-year wideout twice and ultimately getting a 42-yard field goal to put the Colts' first points on the board.
"Looked good. Yeah, he looked good. Marcus, he's looked good in training camp as well," Colts head coach Frank Reich said about Johnson after the game. "I think you can't underestimate how important that is when a guy's coming back from a season-ending injury to get the first game under your belt. I know you're out there during practice, but there's something different about doing it in a game, and I think that's a good hurdle for him to get over as well."
Cain would finish the game with two receptions for 15 yards (four targets), and Johnson also with two catches for 27 yards (six targets). Both of Johnson’s catches would go for first downs.
The Colts are in the midst of a highly competitive training camp position battle at wide receiver, and both Cain and Johnson are among the main competitors.
Cain made a ton of noise with his highlight-reel catches in last year's training camp, but the Colts didn't really get to see him in a game situation due to the knee injury. Regardless, it's easy to see the excitement on the faces of Reich and Chris Ballard when they speak about Cain.
"(It's) just building the confidence back," Reich said about Cain's first game back. "When you come back from an injury like Deon did — and plus, when he got hurt it was the first preseason game last year — I think this'll be a good hurdle to get past. 'Hey, I got past the first game, (and) made a play. Sure, I dropped one,' but I thought he looked good out there overall. (It was) a good step for him and getting him to Week 2 and continue to build his reps."
Johnson was a former player of Reich's when the Colts' head coach was with the Philadelphia Eagles, and he's had nothing but glowing things to say about Johnson since the receiver's arrival last summer.
Johnson called Thusday night's game a "blessing."
"All glory to God," he said. "I was just telling some of the guys (that) my first two years in the league, I missed the first game of the preseason. So this is my second year being able to come out here and compete.
"I'm always thankful for it. It's momentum. The first preseason game, (and) I came out healthy. The wideouts balled out today, so I'm proud of these guys."
Johnson said he hopes to keep that momentum going into the final week of training camp, as he continues to find himself entrenched in a fierce battle for spots at the wide receiver position.
"Just show 'em who I am, man. Consistency, and continue to build each and every year. Comin' in undrafted, it's a process," Johnson said of his goals. "Like Coach (Reich) said last year, we're climbing a mountain for the season, I'm climbing it for my career. I just want to continue to show progress and consistency, and help these guys (the younger receivers) out because I can teach 'em now, I'm at that point in my career. Like I said, just keep giving God all the glory and keep working."
More significant than any statistic they would put up in Thursday's game, though, is the mental hurdle box that the two can now check off. Now, they’ve been on the field, made it out unscathed and had some nice receptions to show for it.
With that new comfort level and likely renewed confidence, both players can get on with their regularly scheduled development.