HOUSTON — For Brian Cushing, there's no substitute to being on the field.
The Houston Texans linebacker returned to practice on Wednesday, what he called "a very small step" as he comes back from his second straight season-ending injury on his left leg.
"Being back with the team is the most important thing," Cushing said. "If I can get out here, I can go through some game-like situations, some real, live-speed stuff, and that's going to help a lot."
Andre Johnson and Arian Foster were also back in pads as the team went through a joint practice with the Atlanta Falcons. Johnson and Foster have both missed most of training camp while nursing hamstring injuries. Johnson was the most active of the trio on Wednesday, and stayed after practice to work with a passing machine.
"I was able to do things full speed," Johnson said. "I didn't participate in competition stuff with the other team because it was the first day. I was just being careful about how they work me back in. Other than that I'll be out here every day."
Cushing had been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of training camp. He tore his lateral collateral ligament and broke his fibula in Week 7 last year after a low hit by Kansas City running back Jamaal Charles. In 2012, Cushing tore the anterior cruciate ligament in Week 5 against the New York Jets.
Cushing knew his limitations as he endured his second painful rehab in as many years.
"When you don't feel right, you don't want to push it, especially when you've gone through it before," he said. "You know what it feels like when it's not right. Obviously, there's some patience that has to go into it. At the same time, you know when you're ready and when you're not."
The Texans have a new staff since Cushing last played, and Coach Bill O'Brien has been impressed by how well Cushing has learned new coordinator Romeo Crennel's defense.
They were careful with Cushing on Wednesday, holding him out of contact drills. Cushing says he needs more live snaps to get Crennel's system down.
"It's really good (to have Cushing back)," O'Brien said. "Here's a guy that's been a leader on this football team for a long time. He's coming off an injury, and that's not always the easiest thing to do. He's been chomping at the bit to get back out there."
The Falcons and Texans worked on third-down, no-huddle and red-zone situations during Wednesday's practice, attended by about 5,000 fans. The teams will practice together again on Thursday leading up to Saturday's game.
"We're just focusing on what we've got to get done," Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. "The great thing we get is that we get to evaluate these guys against other competition. Competition is what drives this league and we want to see guys compete.
"We've been doing it against each other for a long time, almost 2½ weeks, and now we're getting a chance to see them go out and compete against others. This is great because it's a practice situation and you're not putting your guys in a situation where there's a chance of injuries."