On March 11, 2014, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their marquee free agent signing when they signed Michael Johnson to a 5-year, $43.75 million deal. They thought they were getting a franchise right end who had the ability to reach double-digit sacks.
Johnson had only performed that feat once, in 2012, when he amassed 11.5 sacks. In his final year with the Bengals, Johnson officially had 3.5 sacks, but his pressure rates were still decent enough. Then, in 2014, his production fell to the bottom of the barrel.
|Pass Rush Snaps||Sacks||Hits||Hurries||Pass Rush Productivity (Rank among 4-3 DEs)|
All numbers provided by Pro Football Focus.
Last year, Johnson managed to match his sack rate from the 2013 season, but the other pressure numbers dropped dramatically. Take a look at how strong his hit and hurry numbers were in 2013. Both ranked about 10th among 4-3 defensive ends, even though his sack number was very low that year. These hit and hurry numbers don't appear on typical stat sheets, but they are important to a defense that wants to collapse the pocket as a unit. With a tighter pocket, the quarterback is more likely to rush decisions and makes bad throws.
These pressure numbers were very low in 2014 while Johnson was with the Buccaneers. It's easy to point to injuries as the main reason, but there were other issues as well. The biggest single reason was probably the high ankle sprain that Johnson suffered on the second play of the NFL season. Watch Johnson (#90), who starts on the left side of the screen on the play below.
A teammate landed on Johnson's left ankle in the above play. Johnson missed the next few plays to get his ankle evaluated and re-taped. He returned with a noticeable limp and didn't seem to able to push off from his left leg properly. He was hopping around and mostly using his right leg to push off. When the play didn't come to his side, his limp was very obvious because he was hopping around lamely in pursuit.
Johnson missed the next game to rest his ankle. He also missed practice time and was listed as questionable for each of the next three weeks.
Johnson gained his starting job back in the Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. There was a clear difference in his agility and motion between Week 1 and this game. Johnson regained his ability to push off from his left leg and had his best game of the 2014 season.
On the third play of the game, Johnson was left unblocked. Running back, Le'Veon Bell, was late on the slide to Johnson and the mistake allowed Johnson to make an easy strip sack, swiping the ball away from Ben Roethlisberger with his left arm.
In the second quarter, Johnson would get his second sack of the game (and the year). He was working one-on-one against Kelvin Beachum on first down. Johnson rushed upfield and then got his hands inside on Beachum's chest. He threw Beachum off balance with a strong shove from his left arm, then closed on Roethlisberger for the sack. The Bucs' coverage was good on this play, forcing Roethlisberger to hold onto the ball too long.
Later in the game, Johnson showed off his strength and ability to seal the edge with a solo tackle for no gain. He knocked Heath Miller backward several feet into the running back. Johnson then closed on Bell to make the tackle in the backfield.
The next week against the Saints, Johnson logged an inordinately high 84 snaps in an overtime loss to the New Orleans Saints. With 8:39 remaining in the second quarter, Johnson appeared to re-injure his left ankle. He tweaked it as he tried to follow the ball to his left, then hobbled off the field and waved his hand for the backup lineman to come onto the field.
Johnson appeared a few plays later and again seemed to have lost his agility, power, and balance. He hobbled around the field ineffectively for much of the rest of the game. Outside of a few pressures, Johnson was invisible for most of the game. He was smothered by the Saints' left tackle Terron Armstead on passing downs and earned a terrible -5.0 grade in run defense by Pro Football Focus.
Three games later, in Week 8, Johnson appeared to have regained his health. He earned six hurries in this game and added an additional two stops in run defense. His first stop is shown below. This play is a clinic in setting the edge in run defense. Johnson knocked the left tackle Matt Kalil several yards into the backfield and threw him down. The running back had nowhere to go and Johnson made the tackle for a five yard loss.
On the last play of regulation in the Vikings game, it appeared Teddy Bridgewater may have stepped on his hand. Johnson was limited in practice and was listed as questionable with a hand injury for the next three weeks. Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier stated the Johnson broke his hand late in the Week 9 Browns game, but that doesn't mesh with the fact that Johnson was limited in practice that week with a hand injury. It looked like it happened at the end of week eight against the Vikings.
Johnson earned his third sack of the year in Week 11 against the Washington Redskins. Robert Griffin III held onto the ball way too long on this play, so this was definitely a coverage sack. The pass rush itself wasn't any different from a normal failed rush on a quicker throw.
Johnson was mostly quiet for the next few games. Against Cincinnati in Week 13, he didn't earn a single pressure while working against Andrew Whitworth. In 50 snaps, he had only one play where he made an impact, and that was because he was left completely unblocked. On this play, he was able to chase Gio Bernard down from behind for a one yard gain.
Overall, Pro Football Focus gave Johnson only three positively graded games out of the 14 he played. His last good game of the year came against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16. Apparently, Johnson loves to play well against Aaron Rodgers. He got a huge hit on Rodgers on the first play of the game. Then, on the Packers' second possession, Johnson earned his second strip sack of the year. He was running a stunt where he was just supposed to eat up blockers, but the Packers' left tackle David Bakhtiari passed Johnson off to no one. This allowed Johnson to slip free into Aaron Rodgers' face. Johnson jumped up and was still able to tackle Rodgers on his way down. As Johnson spun Rodgers to the turf, the ball came free and the Buccaneers recovered.
The last game of the year for the Buccaneers was a meaningless one for both teams involved. The Bucs squared off against the Saints, while the Falcons and Panthers battled for the division title. Johnson played well enough in only 13 snaps. He got close to Drew Brees a few times and made a stop in run defense, but the Bucs decided to see what they had in their backup defensive ends instead.
Johnson finished the season with only 4 sacks and 27 tackles in 14 games played, although it was more like 12 games played since he was pulled early in Week 17 and only got a few snaps in the Week 3 blowout. Then, consider the fact that he was playing hurt for at least two full games. When he wasn't injured, he played fine. He showed his strength and length to bull rush offensive linemen backwards and to set the edge in run defense. However, even with his ankle and hand injuries, Johnson should have been more productive as a pass rusher and should have been more stout as a run defender. Somehow, he didn't have any batted passes all season, yet he had seven only one season ago.
Regardless, it's clear that Johnson still has the ability to be a dominant defensive end. He needs to stay healthy and he needs to play with more energy and motor. Perhaps he'll return to his old form if he's playing with his old teammates and under his old position coach, Jay Hayes. With maximum motivation and maximum comfort in his surroundings, Bengals fans should see the old Michael Johnson once again.
Johnson's quotes from a recent conference call with Cincinnati media showed that he is extremely happy to be back and he sounds like he is very motivated to return to form.
"I’m not going to make excuses. My production wasn’t what it needs to be last year for whatever reason," Johnson said in a conference call with the Cincinnati media. "I got the high ankle sprain on the second play of the first game. You can look around the league and see what happens with high ankle sprains. It was tough. I tried to battle through it. I wanted to go back and show them up what I had, but it didn’t happen. Cincinnati is going to get the best season of my career."
Johnson is not an elite pass rusher, but he is a competent one. Bengals fans shouldn't expect him to be a yearly double-digit sack man (although he should be motivated with a $4 million bonus if he reaches 10 sacks this year). He is more of a physical edge-setter in run defense. Johnson will be a key cog in Guenther's defensive engine. As they collectively stop the run better on early downs, this will allow for more pure pass rushing situations on second and third down. Additionally, the rotation will be fresher (with Wallace Gilberry as the prime beneficiary) and the engine will run smoother. With another defensive tackle expected early in the draft to add to the rotation, the defensive front will be the strength of the defense once again. Guenther's 22nd ranked defense (by yards per game allowed) will shoot back up into the top 10, where it was ranked for three straight years previously.