The professional football career of Michael Johnson has been defined by finding his fit on the field. Coming out of Georgia Tech in 2009, the Bengals selected Johnson at the top of the third round and thought of him as an outside linebacker in their traditional 4-3 scheme, but little did they know Johnson’s future involved him in a three-point stance lined up on the line of scrimmage.
Johnson tested very well at the 2009 NFL Combine for being one of the taller players present, and according to mockdraftable.com, measured in the 93 percentile in the explosion category:
Once the team finally made Johnson a full time right defensive end, he progressed into the player that accumulated 17.5 sacks from 2011-2012. How Johnson won so consistently was by utilizing his abnormal combination of length and explosion as a power rusher and an edge setter. He left the Bengals after signing a multi-year deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014, but was cut a year later after proving to be a non-fit in Tampa’s scheme. He returned to the Bengals in 2015 and played slightly more consistently in the Bengals’ 12-4 season.
There wasn’t much buzz surrounding Johnson entering this year because he seemed to have established his standard, and didn’t have much left to prove. But after eight games, we’re starting to see legitimate signs of inconsistency and regression from the now eight year veteran.
One skill that hasn’t quite diminished from Johnson’s weaponry is his ability to split blockers to slice through gaps, what is called: “getting skinny”. It’s how he obtained his first full sack of the year.
In Week 6 against the New England Patriots, Johnson is lined up as a wide-nine rusher, and took the inside route toward the B gap, as the slot corner tried to turn the corner on the edge. Johnson did a good job maintaining his momentum as he narrowed his target area for the blockers to engage him. And his path led right to the quarterback for the takedown.
This has popped up a couple times in terms of run defense as well. In Week 4 against the Miami Dolphins, Johnson is the strong-side six technique, as he is responsible for the play-side C gap.
Immediately at the snap, Johnson rotates his frame to his left and squeezes his way through the subpar combo block by the left tackle and tight end. This is getting skinny in a nutshell. Once he is free in the backfield, he has an opportunity to take down the running back. Unfortunately, the back runs through Johnson’s attempt at a diving stop. This is a good example of how much explosion and general athleticism Johnson has lost this year, and it’s appeared more than a few times.
This was noticeable from one of the very first plays of the season against the New York Jets.
On a broken play from a low snap, the Jets run play is seemingly ruined in the backfield. But the ever-so-elusive Ryan Fitzpatrick manages to wiggle around an incoming Johnson from the field-side. You can credit running back Matt Forte for “taking out” Johnson with a make-shift block on the run, but the Johnson of old would’ve made that play instead of watching it go by for positive yards.
Later in that game, Johnson had a free lane to Fitzpatrick, but again, a lack of athleticism in space cost him:
Fitzpatrick does a decent job of maneuvering in the pocket, but make no mistake, Johnson has to get him there. If he can’t adjust his course and turn the corner, and all Fitzpatrick has to do is do a little side step, then Fitzpatrick was never in any real danger. This would go down as a pressure in the stat book, but it could’ve been so much more.
Two weeks later against the Denver Broncos, Johnson tried to produce a bull rush against a very good left tackle, Russell Okung, but, had no power or explosion to get any push:
On the surface, it is a win for Okung, but all year long, it’s been evident that this is who Johnson is starting to become as a pass rusher. The power moves that won him his reps in the past are nowhere to be found, and his drop in athleticism should take most of the credit for that.
Let’s return to the Dolphins game. Johnson is the play-side nine technique for this stretch run.
He stacks and sheds the futile block by the tight end and takes care of the C gap. But like we saw from the previous play from this game, he is unable to finish the play and make the tackle, as the back is too far out of Johnson’s reach.
This is the conundrum with Johnson. Coming into the league, he had the athletic traits to succeed as an edge player, but didn’t quite know how to win with his hands yet. It’s an even more common issue with pass rushers entering the league nowadays. But, the things that limited Johnson early in his career are now his biggest strengths and the things that made him such an attractive prospect now limit him to what he can do. He has above average hand skills and body coordination to shed blocks, but no explosion and barely any quickness left in the tank, which causes him to miss plays like this.
So, while he can still create some splash plays like this in a phone booth (furthest left on the line of scrimmage):
He’s bound to look like this from time to time (far right):
We know he’s not the athlete he used to be, but Johnson was never, ever, good in space in the first place. Which is why using him as a stand up linebacker seemed so odd early in his career.
This doesn’t help me understand why the Bengals have been using Johnson in coverage a few times a game. In fact, it seems comically absurd just writing it.
The first time they did this this year back in Week 1, it actually worked.
The Bengals use a bear front and disguise Johnson as a blitzer, and drop him back in an underneath zone. Johnson goes with the crosser, and miraculously makes a play on the ball, forcing the incompletion. Maybe Paul Guenther got cocky and decided this will work all the time.
Against the Broncos, they had him try to play man coming out of a three-point stance, and wouldn’t you know he’d be in bad position and be tempted to hold:
In Week 5 against the Dallas Cowboys, he took on Cole Beasley in the flats, and it went about as well as you would imagine.
And in Week 8 against the Washington Redskins, a play call left him covering the middle of the field and Johnson made a complete fool of himself.
Somehow, Guenther sleeps at night knowing he allowed this to happen and I personally can’t understand how that’s possible.
Like the team as a whole, Johnson’s first half of 2016 has been underwhelming at best. He is past his best days, but he still has some effectiveness left in him. For all defensive lineman, sacks can come in bunches and it’s plausible for Johnson to go off for a week or two in the coming games, but don’t count on it. He’s a decent run defender who has lost almost all his explosiveness he had coming off the edge. The bye week should’ve helped, but it’s not going to make Johnson a younger and quicker player.