Let’s take a quick stroll through memory lane. I was never a good athlete, but I played football for a really small town back in high school - center on offense and a bit of a Swiss Army knife along the defensive front. As a freshman, I was a nose tackle before sliding out to defensive end as a sophomore.
When I got to varsity, my coach gave me the choice to slide back to linebacker because they wanted to two-gap with their tackles and had locked in ends. I was a 5-foot-9, 200-pound-ish kid with a lot more heart than talent. Fast forward to the fifth game of the year and one of the starters got yanked. My first defensive snaps of the year were against the two fastest backs we’d faced all year, and we were already down two touchdowns. I wound up with nine tackles, including a couple for a loss. It was by far the highlight of my linebacker career.
Which brings us to the reason you’re reading this - Alexander Johnson’s first NFL action may very well be the best game of his career through almost no fault of his own. It was that good.
It’s easily the best Broncos’ stack backer tape I’ve studied this year. And while Todd Davis’ Houston and Pittsburgh games in 2018 were really awesome, Johnson launches off the tape in a way that the veteran doesn’t. No game I studied in 2017 blew me away like A.J.’s did.
My biggest gripe about the Chargers game may be how high it’s going to set expectations for the second-year backer moving forward. Going into the game, the right side of the Broncos’ run defense was a huge concern. They were one of the worst teams in the league defending runs off the B and C gap through the first four weeks of the NFL season, and the Chargers looked to test it early.
On the second play of the game, the Chargers lined up in 12 personnel (two tight ends) and ran a counter right at the Broncos’ right side. It was smart, exactly what I would have done after watching the Jaguars and Leonard Fournette gash this same defense for 225 yards.
Instead, the Broncos’ fresh pieces and old faces in new places shut it down with gusto. Mike Purcell ate a double from the center and left guard without giving ground. Shelby Harris played down the line to leverage the point of attack. Alexander Johnson and Kareem Jackson played downhill from the second and third level to stop Gordon for a minimal gain.
It was, in one word, beautiful. In two words, teaching tape.
Later on the Chargers’ opening drive, they go back to the well to attack the right side with a lead draw. The idea of the play is to fake like it’s a pass on the snap in order to get defensive lineman out of the run gaps and take advantage of linebackers dropping into coverage. It’s a way to try to aid an over-matched offensive line against a defensive front looking to stop the pass.
Only the Broncos’ backers didn’t drop near enough to create lanes. Even worse, Johnson played downhill fast enough to meet the fullback in the hole, while Jackson met Mike Williams’ block and kept himself positioned to help on the ball carrier. Gordon hits the ground after gaining just three yards on 2nd and 10.
To be honest though, I expected Johnson to be a big upgrade in run defense. He showed out as a run defender in the preseason and had almost 20 pounds on Corey Nelson. Where he really impressed me was his plays against the pass.
Let’s start with Johnson’s abilities as a blitzer. It’s another area he showed glimpses of promise in during the preseason, and his physicality and strength really shine here. It’s one underrated part of his game as a rusher that I found exciting is his hands. He isn’t content to just throw them, but has a plan for how to beat a pass blocker, dipping his shoulder and ripping up to get past Forrest Lamp on the play above.
Johnson also looks viable on stunts. Here, he’s threatening pre-snap and meets Michael Schofield initially before crashing into Mike Pouncey, occupying both for a beat to help the looper get around.
You’ll notice Johnson didn’t get home on either of the plays above. In fact, nothing about his box score suggests he’ll help the pass rush. This should hint at how pressures is an important aspect of pass defense that flies under the radar.
One of the staples of the Fangio defense is how he tries to get to the quarterback with as few rushers as possible. This way, the coverage is sound and there’s less risk of an explosive play. When a blitzer can occupy two blockers, it often helps other players get free.
This shouldn’t be news if you’ve watched Von Miller’s snaps over the years, but with Bradley Chubb out for the year, the Broncos need to find other players who are plus-pass rushers, and the early indication is Johnson will be.
Finally, there’s Johnson’s play in space. Throughout the preseason, my biggest question about the 6-foot-2, 245-pound backer was how he’d look in coverage. In many aspects, he looked like a similar player to Todd Davis - great at the point of attack, underrated blitzer, and capable of chasing runs down but limited athletically.
Johnson threw that expectation in the trash. His drop into hook zones is clean, the depth is desirable, and he keeps his eyes on the quarterback while responding to his assignment. Fangio’s scheme generally asks the linebackers to make their drops and react accordingly, but what really helped Johnson stand out is when he’d read Rivers’ intentions.
These kind of plays are often attributed to “instincts” because it almost seems as if the defensive player just feels out where things are going. What gets lost is how it takes a lot of studying and film work to have a clear understanding of the offenses tendencies.
The best players can take what they see on the film and bring it to the field with them. It’s important to remember this is just one game, but watching Johnson do it suggests he’ll play a lot faster than he times.
On the play above, the Chargers are running a vertical route and hook to open up space for Austin Ekeler on a swing pass. It’s a staple of L.A.’s playbook, and Rivers loves to go to his backs in the passing game. The Broncos surely knew this, so Johnson reads up on his assignment to pursue the much faster running back even before the ball is in the air.
It’s easy to get caught up in Johnson’s tape and cross linebacker off the Broncos 2020 needs. I was tempted to do so Tuesday, because that’s how good he looked on Sunday. It makes Denver’s decision to sit him for Corey Nelson and Fangio’s comments on that decision Monday all the more interesting:
“He’s a young guy who needs to master his craft a little bit better, meaning assignment-wise and details, but I always knew he was going to eventually get in there somehow someway because he does have talent. The worst thing you can sometimes do with a guy like that is get him in there too early for a lot of reasons. One, he might not be ready, and he might think he had it made. He needed to earn some stripes on the special teams and improve there. I had a feeling he would go in and play well yesterday. Now, was he perfect? You saw a lot of good plays, but the plays you didn’t notice—there were some accidents ready to happen that didn’t get exploited and he needs to clean those up. That’s part of the reason, not the only reason, that he hadn’t played much earlier.”
Part of me remains confused because Nelson played after all of seven days in the system and clearly didn’t know his assignments as well as Johnson did on Sunday. This isn’t meant as disrespect toward Fangio, as he’ll forget more about linebacker play than I’ll ever know. Instead, it leaves me wondering if there was some concern about the linebacker’s growth if he played early without “earning it.”
Fangio was asked about Johnson again yesterday:
“He’s got some size. He’s got some thump and I thought he played well. Now he made a bushel full of mistakes too that he had a rabbit’s foot in his pocket that he didn’t pay for. We have to get those rectified quickly.”
At least to me, this felt like a coach trying to keep a young player from drinking his own Kool Aid. I didn’t see a “bushel full” of mistakes, but there are hints that things won’t always be so easy for Johnson down the road.
One of the nastier things the Chargers do really well that teams like the Chiefs will try to emulate are pick plays to get the backs into space. This was already a concern with all of the backers playing before Johnson, so it isn’t necessarily new. It’s just fair to mention that inserting new blood into the lineup doesn’t completely solve this.
At first glance, the play above is an outstanding one for Johnson. He outruns a pick play, chases Ekeler down, and makes a touchdown saving tackle that forces the Chargers into a 4th and goal.
It’s important to note how Isaac Yiadom helped Johnson before the snap though. It made a difference on this play for sure, but even more importantly it shows an area where Johnson can definitely still get exposed if he doesn’t improve.
Fangio also alluded on Wednesday to some of the mistakes Johnson got away with that will need to be cleaned up.
Fangio’s concerns are legitimate ones, and there will probably still be growing pains ahead. Still, Johnson’s debut was incredibly promising. I hope Johnson earns more snaps, even if Josey Jewell is healthy.