James-Michael Johnson noticed the formation. Then he noted the down and distance, third-and-long, and his instincts screamed “screen play.”
He was right.
This was Thursday, the first quarter of the Chiefs’ preseason opener against Cincinnati, and Johnson took off toward the right flat, slipping past two linemen before he delivered a blow to running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis, who couldn’t come up with the catch.
“Great play,” Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said after a recent practice. “Those are the plays you’re looking for.”
This was also the kind of play that has helped Johnson, a fourth-round pick by Cleveland in 2012, ascend on the Chiefs’ depth chart after he was claimed off waivers last September.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid recently told the team’s website that Johnson covers “like no other,” a special trait that could help him see more playing time in 2014.
“He understands the leverage that you have to have with a linebacker, he understands the leverage with tight ends and then in zone coverages with guys crossing in front of him or when guys are trying to cross behind and in front of him on a route,” Reid said.
“He kind of knows how to play that and again, work leverages. He understands the pass game. He’s got a good feel for that.”
That’s a big reason Johnson opened the Cincinnati game as a starting linebacker in the Chiefs’ nickel sub package, a much-cherished opportunity to show what he could do next to established first-teamers Dontari Poe, Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson, with the latter being a player James-Michael regularly studies.
“He’s probably one of the best cover guys I’ve seen,” he said. “He’s a really good athlete and I’m behind him in the base package, so everything he does, I’m watching him. I’m taking notes on how he calls stuff out, because he’ll call plays out before they happen. Pass plays and run plays. I’m soaking all that up, trying to just learn from it.”
One of the best lessons James-Michael has learned from Derrick Johnson — and the one of the biggest reasons his pass defense has improved — is diagnosing a play before it happens.
This, James-Michael said, helps him compensate for his decent but not blazing speed. He ran a 4.68 40-yard dash before the 2012 NFL Draft, which sometimes shows if he gets matched up with a receiver and he’s a tick slow to diagnose.
“You can have all the speed in the world, but if you aren’t anticipating and you’re going the wrong way, it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The quicker you can notice that and make a play, the better.”
Johnson, who logged a team-high eight tackles in the Chiefs’ preseason win over Cincinnati, caught the eyes of the coaching staff late last season with his instincts in coverage.
In the regular-season finale against the San Diego Chargers, Johnson served as the Chiefs’ top inside linebacker ahead of the team’s own 2013 fourth-round pick, Nico Johnson, logging 48 snaps (compared to Nico Johnson’s 15) before he was forced to leave because of an ankle injury.
Sutton called James-Michael competitive and smart, and noted that his presence could give the Chiefs added flexibility against the plethora of three- or four-wide sets that have become popular around the league.
The Chiefs were fond of using Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry at inside linebacker in those sub packages last season, and fellow safety Husain Abdullah has also gotten some work there in training camp.
But Johnson, who stands 6 feet 1 and 240 pounds, outweighs both players by at least 30 pounds and should theoretically hold up better in down-and-distances where a running play might be an option.
“Whether they have three receivers on the field or four receivers on the field, it allows you to put a guy out there that can not only play physical in the run game, but also can drop and be that big safety type of player,” Reid said.
Now it’s up to Johnson to make sure he continues to stay in the first-team mix. Derrick Johnson and Joe Mays are the clear starters in the base defense, and Johnson has to hold off Josh Mauga and Nico Johnson to keep his spot on the 53-man roster.
But while Johnson understands he hasn’t locked up a consistent role yet, he conceded the “cover like no other” compliment from Reid was nice.
“My mother actually pointed that out to me,” Johnson said, “and I thought that was pretty cool. That’s what I really like about this organization, they give you feedback.
“When I was in Cleveland, we didn’t really get too much feedback on how we were doing. And the next thing you know, we just got released. So now, you actually know how you’re doing. It makes a big difference.”