Broncos inside linebacker Alexander Johnson looks for strong follow to breaking season
As soon as Broncos inside linebacker Alexander Johnson pulled into a hotel parking lot earlier this month to participate in a team-wide protest march, he got the itch to put on a helmet and shoulder pads.
“When I got to the buses and saw my teammates, the first feeling I had was, ‘Ooh, I’m ready for some football,’” Johnson said with his signature big laugh.
Ready for football, ready to build on his 2019 breakout season, ready to prove to coach Vic Fangio he can be a long-term core player and ready to show general manager John Elway he should be considered for a second contract. Johnson had 93 tackles in 12 games last year, enough of a sample size to allow Elway and Fangio to wait until the fifth round to select an inside linebacker (Wake Forest’s Justin Strnad).
“It’s funny you say that because me and my family joked about it,” Johnson said. “After the first year I was here, obviously I wasn’t playing and was put on the practice squad, but they didn’t draft an inside linebacker (in 2019). I was like, ‘Shoot, they just know they have me in the backseat (ready to play).’
“I guess it can be some kind of endorsement. I know Todd (Davis) and I are going to go out there and perform and be the best inside linebacker (duo) in the league.”
No doubt, Johnson, 28, is confident and possibly for good reason. He couldn’t talk that type of talk last June.
Johnson started all five preseason games last year, suggesting the coaches wanted to see his mettle in August and that he wasn’t being considered for a regular role.
“He was a depth player kind of fighting his way onto the roster at this point last year,” defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. “He’s sure in a better place (now).”
Out of 258 defensive snaps during the Broncos’ 0-4 start, Johnson played none.
But looking for a spark — any kind of spark — Fangio moved Johnson and nose tackle Mike Purcell into the starting lineup. At the time, the Broncos had the 30th-ranked rush defense and had no takeaways.
To use Johnson’s analogy, he moved from the back seat to the front seat of the Broncos’ defense.
Over the final 12 games, Johnson played 749 of 823 snaps (90.9%). Despite spotting his teammates a four-game head start, he still finished tied for second on the team in tackles. The Denver Post’s game charting booked him for just six missed tackles.
“He made the most of his opportunity,” Donatell said. “We found a role for him and a way to feature his style.”
Johnson’s style: Run and hit. Period.
What a review of three selected games showed about Johnson’s 2019 season, but also his potential for 2020 …
Week 5 at the Los Angeles Chargers: In first start, was “factor” (impact on the play) on 14 of 65 snaps. … Credited with eight tackles and one interception (dropped another interception). … Showed terrific lateral speed by stopping running back Austin Ekeler short of goal-line on pass to right flat. … Majority of his coverage responsibilities were in zone (retreating back), but he did buzz outside to cover outlet option.
Week 8 at Indianapolis: Credited with 13 tackles, but we gave him a “factor” nod on 11 of 58 snaps. … Forced fumble the Colts recovered and had quarterback knockdown. … Showed inexperience when he blitzed unblocked, but bit on play action, allowing Jacoby Brissett to throw for 12 yards. … Called for horse-collar penalty on Colts’ winning drive.
Week 13 vs. the Chargers: We picked this game because Johnson wore a brace on his left knee and Fangio said he was “50-50” to play. … “Factor” on 11 of 66 snaps. … Involved in two tackles for lost yardage and had quarterback pressure. … Clearly limited because of injury, which prevented him from running sideline to sideline and dodging second-level blocks, but showed high want-to level by playing every snap.
The next step for Johnson is being used more often in man coverage, able to trail a tight end down the seam and improve his tracking ability against running backs.
Johnson has already told inside linebackers coach Reggie Herring he wants a shot to cover tight ends.
“Obviously, people talk about how me and Todd can’t cover; we’re going to show them we can,” Johnson said. “I told (Herring), ‘Let me cover a tight end in practice and show you I can do it and then translate that over to the game.’”
If Johnson proves capable of covering tight ends, it could allow Fangio to use him as the only inside linebacker in dime personnel (six defensive backs) or keep him and Davis on the field in nickel personnel (five defensive backs).
Regardless, Johnson will be an early-down mainstay.
“He kind of brings that roughneck element to our defense,” Donatell said. “We really like where he is. He’s way ahead of where he was (last year) because he’s got a major role on this team.”
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