Injuries have been a big problem for the Cincinnat Bengals this season, but it was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ need to add a running back and quarterback due to injuries that resulted in them waiving undrafted rookie offensive lineman Fred Johnson.
The Bengals had a roster spot available because Kerry Wynn was going on injured reserve. The net result of these injuries may prove to be a big positive for the Bengals.
Johnson looked very promising at guard for the Steelers in the preseason and after getting roughly two-thirds of the snaps at left tackle in Week 16, the Bengals gave him the start in the season finale.
Let’s take a look at Johnson over the last two weeks and see what he may bring to the table in 2020.
Fred Johnson laughs at your twist pic.twitter.com/MZJNRqCInI— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 30, 2019
The Bengals offensive line has struggled this season with movement by the defensive line, but Johnson does an incredible job handling this stunt by the Dolphins.
This was the two-point conversion that sent the game into overtime. A huge moment but not too big for the 326-pounder.
Johnson pass sets to protect the outside from Andrew Van Ginkel (43). When Van Ginkel stunts to his inside, Johnson steps down and engages on him, keeping his eyes up. When he sees Jerome Baker (55) loop around to the outside, he comes off of Van Ginkel, sets back to the outside and strikes Baker, stopping him in his tracks.
This was a great play in a key moment of the game, but it is even more impressive if you consider the next clip.
This was on the previous drive.
The Dolphins ran a similar stunt with Trent Harris stunting to the inside gap and Sam Eguavoen looping to the outside.
In this clip Johnson post steps to Harris and comes off on Eguavoen, but it is much slower. If the quarterback was not able to get rid of the ball so quickly, the pocket would have been compromised.
Johnson learned from his mistake here and fixed it the next time he saw the stunt. The Bengals had an onside kick between drives, so he didn’t have time to sit on the bench and let a coach show him a picture of what had happened. He figured it out on his own.
This shows an extremely high level of processing on Johnson’s part. Not only that, this carried over into the following week against the Browns. Cleveland ran a number of twists and stunts and Johnson did an excellent job of picking them up.
This clip shows Johnson making another kind of adjustment.
There is a defensive end just outside of Johnson. That is where he is anticipating the edge rush will come from, but the defensive end stunts into the A-gap and is picked up by center Trey Hopkins and the linebacker comes off of the edge.
As a result of the wider edge rush, Johnson has to gain depth to make the block. He does a great job of getting into position and stopping the rush.
In 82 pass protection snaps this season, Fred Johnson wasn't charged by PFF with a single pressure, hit or sack.— Jeaux Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 30, 2019
As the tweet above shows, Johnson has done an excellent job in pass protection when he has gotten an opportunity.
He kept the pressure away from the quarterback every single time he was in pass protection. This is incredible, especially for a rookie playing a marquee position lined up next to another rookie.
But Johnson is a rookie and has some technique issues that will need to be addressed over the offseason.
One is that he tends to play high and the clip above shows what can be the result.
Johnson is high and his feet are tight. All it takes is one good shot to knock him down. He needs to bend his knees and keep a wide base.
Johnson is 6-7 and taller players often struggle in this area. He may need to work to improve his flexibility as well as his technique.
Some issues to clean up here pic.twitter.com/W4GZaPSMF1— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 31, 2019
In this clip, Johnson does a great job of getting out wide to pick up the block on Olivier Vernon (54), but on his fourth step with his left foot, he stops gaining depth.
This allows Vernon to get to Johnson’s hip, but it is Johnson reaching and leaning that allows Vernon get past him.
This is an issue that has showed up for Johnson in the run game as well. This problem is related to the pad level issue discussed above as it shows that he tends to bend more at his waist than his knees.
Again, something that can be worked on over the offseason.
In Week 16 against the Dolphins, Johnson had some struggles maintaining zone blocks. He would engage with the edge player, but they would quickly disengage, often to the inside.
In Week 17, he showed improvement in this area.
In the clip above, he locks on to Vernon on the zone block. His path is a bit wide, which allows Vernon to show in the inside gap, but Johnson fights to get into better position and prevents Vernon from getting free in the gap.
This is a great adjustment and is something offensive linemen need to be able to do in zone blocking schemes. That is why offensive linemen are taught to strike with their hands and gain extension. It gives them room to adjust when the defensive lineman attempt to take a gap.
This clip shows a down-scheme double team between Johnson and left guard Michael Jordan. The pair of rookies should be working from the 3-technique, Sheldon Richardson (98), to the middle linebacker, Mack Wilson (51).
Jordan buries his shoulder into the Richardson and takes his eyes off of Wilson who shoots the gap. Then, Jordan leans too much and loses his balance. He should be coming off to pick up Wilson, but instead he falls on his face.
In contrast, Johnson strikes low, getting underneath Richardson's shoulder pads. He does a great job of rolling his hips forward to generate power and gets some serious movement on the defender.
That’s what you call putting the defender on skates. He has Richardson rolling backwards. This is a fantastic job by Johnson against a very good veteran in Richardson.
Johnson has also looked excellent on toss plays.
In the clip above he shows excellent athleticism as he pulls to the outside and destroys safety Eric Murray (22), driving him all the way into the end zone.
Obviously, Johnson has a size advantage, but he should be at a disadvantage athletically. Still, Murray isn’t able to get around him.
Johnson does an excellent job of working up to the second level and blocking the linebacker in this clip, but that is not why I am showing it to you. Joe Mixon breaks free for a 41-yard run here and at the end Johnson is right there to congratulate him.
Johnson and C.J. Uzomah both show tremendous effort running down the field on this play.
Why is that important?
Because if Mixon decides to cut the ball back, these two would be in position to set the block that could potentially spring him free for the touchdown.
Great effort by Fred Johnson and Alex Erickson to pick up blocks here pic.twitter.com/tYbQGhGL1g— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) December 31, 2019
Here is another excellent effort play. This time Johnson and Alex Erickson pick up key blocks as Andy Dalton scrambles for the touchdown.
This spring, Bengals will likely be drafting Joe Burrow, a quarterback who is known for extending plays with his legs. We could be seeing this type of play all the time and offensive players will need to be aware and play through the whistle.
These effort plays are also a good indicator that Johnson will work hard in the offseason to improve and perfect his craft.
Johnson looked very promising over the final two weeks of the season. In the run game, he has been extremely impressive in down blocking schemes and pulling on toss plays. He has showed some promise in zone blocking as well, but needs to work on maintaining those blocks. His pass protection has been very good, and he does a fantastic job of adjusting to defensive line stunts.
He has already demonstrated that he is a quick learner and it will be interesting to see what he can do after a full offseason working with the Bengals’ coaches.