“He’s always around the ball. He kinda pisses you off because he’s always in the hole somehow.” – Thomas Jones
Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson simply was not living up to expectations prior to last season. I don’t need to replay the over-aggressive and undisciplined play that he brought to Arrowhead on Sundays. Instead, to show his improvement, I looked at his block-slipping, playmaking, and havoc wreaking play of 2011.
Last season, the word to describe Johnson was “omnipresent”. He always seemed to be in the figurative picture; even when he would slide out of the literal picture because of the excessively tight camera angles, he’d somehow end up back in it and make you say, “there’s 56 again.” It was a season filled with an impressive display of instincts — the kind that you look for in every linebacker — week-in and week-out.
To be everywhere, you have to be able to do everything, which is what Johnson did last season. He was always in the mix against the run by running down the line of scrimmage and mirroring the ball carrier’s every step. He also did a good job of dealing with trapping and pulling guards, which was a difficult task for him because that’s a skill he’s often struggled with, and he plays in a tough defense that doesn’t always appear to suit his strengths.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel is married to the two-gap, 3-4 “double-bubble” front that I’ve discussed before, which means that Johnson isn’t always protected up front by an under tackle. In contrast, he has to take on the uncovered and bigger guards that are aligned across from him. To deal with this, he has developed an interesting way of beating them: lowering his pad level.
By lowing his pad level, the blockers aren’t able to directly drive him back, and they have to sink their hips to block him. This is a difficult task for an offensive lineman, so Johnson’s often able to drop low and trip up the ball carrier, just like he did against the Chicago Bears in week 13.
The resulting tackle left Bears running back Marion Barber visibly upset, shaking his head and frustratingly talking to his offensive lineman. In addition to lowering his pads, Johnson was often able to spin out of blocks and stay on his feet at the point of attack when having to take on blockers head on.
Further, he did damage against the pass in more ways than one. He was a problem downhill when blitzing by often getting into the backfield and racking up pressures. He did this quite well and did it by beating blockers, whether they were running backs or offensive linemen. Against lineman, he spun free and into the backfield, and he chose to beat running backs with his impressive quickness.
When dropping in coverage, Johnson did a good job of keeping his head on a swivel and (again) being around the ball often (see: his two interceptions). He displayed strong instincts and range, which enabled him to run sideline-to-sideline. He also was able disrupt the concentration of pass catchers by getting his hands up, which led to incomplete or intercepted passes.
As you can see, Johnson is quite a talent, and his performance last season is the one that the Chiefs expected to see when they selected him in the top 15 of the 2005 draft. Last season, he became one of the NFL’s most complete linebackers as he did damage in coverage, against the run, and while blitzing. In a word, he was omnipresent.
He just pissed people off.