The 6’1” 230 pound Johnson led the Aggies with 85 tackles in 2020. He also recorded four sacks and an interception and was named a semi-finalist for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s best linebacker.
Johnson is an aggressive, downhill backer with a nose for the football. He will play the Buck (strong side) position in Pittsburgh, where he will initially be slotted behind Vince Williams and Robert Spillane on the depth chart. Johnson is a good tackler and, when he uses his hands, plays off of blocks well. His aggression can get him in trouble by putting him out of position, however, and he can get swallowed up at times by bigger offensive linemen.
While Johnson is not exactly a coverage specialist, he moves well enough laterally to stay with crossers and defend backs out of the backfield. He’s an upgrade over Williams and Spillane in this department.
For this film room, I’ve chosen Johnson’s final collegiate game, the 2021 Orange Bowl in which A&M defeated North Carolina 41-27. Johnson turned in a solid performance, making 10 tackles, recording a sack and doing a nice job in coverage. He displayed his trademark aggressiveness as well as some of the traits that could create problems for him in the NFL.
Let’s take a look.
On North Carolina’s opening drive, the Tar Heels were in a passing situation on 2nd and 12. They ran Mesh, a staple of just about every offense in America, which features two receivers crossing the middle of the field in close proximity to one another. The challenge in covering the crossers for the underneath defenders is, in zone, to communicate and trade off the routes (rather than chasing them); and, in man, to navigate the mesh without getting picked or rubbed by one of the bodies cluttering the area.
Johnson (#1, left inside backer) does this expertly. He appears to be playing a combo coverage with the alley defender on the running back and slot receiver. Johnson has whichever of the two goes in while the alley takes whomever goes out. Here, the slot comes inside, running the shallowest of the two crossing routes. Johnson locates him, pivots to run with him, avoids the referee and the high-cross from Carolina’s H-back and tracks the slot’s hip. He shows good awareness and lateral movement in helping force an incompletion:
Johnson is a capable pass defender, but his strong suit is defending the run. Later in the first quarter, however, we see a situation in which he can struggle in that area — disengaging from bigger offensive linemen.
Below, Johnson (right inside linebacker) attempts to fill a hole to his left to defend a one-back power run. Carolina’s right tackle, Jordan Tucker (#74), is a massive individual at 6’7-335. Tucker’s size makes him difficult for smaller players like Johnson to navigate. Johnson does his best to stay square and he tries to use his hands to punch and separate. But Tucker is simply too big. Johnson can’t get over top of him or shed quickly enough to stop the running back from escaping:
The same is not true in this next clip. This is one of my favorite plays of the game by Johnson. Carolina is running GT counter right at Johnson (right inside linebacker). The right guard pulls and kicks out the edge defender while Tucker, the big tackle, wraps to the backer. Watch how quickly Johnson diagnoses the play and gets downhill to fill the hole. Then, look at the two-hand punch he delivers to Tucker’s chest to jolt Tucker upright and create separation. Johnson finishes by shedding the block and assisting on the tackle:
This play shows that when Johnson uses his hands properly, he is a powerful player capable of handling the bigger linemen he will routinely see in the NFL.
Johnson’s reaction in the previous clip displays his ability to diagnose plays quickly. The same is true here. Johnson (right inside backer) again sees the run action and fills fast. This time, however, he’s a bit out of control as he approaches the line of scrimmage and is not prepared to take on the block of the left guard. It’s as though Johnson is expecting to blow the gap cleanly and is surprised when the guard gets to him. He is unprepared to use his hands and doesn’t have any sort of base that will allow him to fight the block. Johnson will have to be more fundamentally sound as an NFL backer so he doesn’t run himself out of plays:
Speaking of running, watch Johnson here. Aligned at right inside backer, he scrapes over top of a gap-exchange stunt that occupies Carolina’s H-back and frees Johnson to run to the football. Run he does, tracking down the quarterback on a zone-read play and finishing with a nice form tackle:
Johnson shows his lateral speed again on this 3rd and 5 play. You can see him circled in the pre-snap photo below, walked up in the B-gap as though he’s coming on a blitz:
At the snap, however, he peels off and picks up the running back in coverage. Because of the ground Johnson has to cover, the quarterback probably suspected this would be an easy pitch and catch for a first down. But Johnson shows good closing speed to track down the back and stop him short of the marker:
Here’s Johnson in coverage again. Aligned at right inside backer, he’s responsible for the release of the running back. This is likely an option route where the back reads Johnson’s leverage and breaks away from it. With Johnson moving laterally to his right, the back must have believed he could have beaten Johnson across his face. But Johnson balances up quickly, redirects and tracks the hip of the back. It’s another nice job by Johnson in an area of his game that’s supposed to be a weakness:
In watching Johnson’s film, I’m more concerned about his positioning against the run than I am about his pass coverage. This isn’t consistent with the scouting reports on Johnson. They all characterize him as a thumper against the run, which no doubt he is. But in the three games I watched to prepare this article (North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida), Johnson was rarely out of position against the pass. He did, however, have a tendency to bury himself by being overly aggressive against the run. Being a thumper is one thing. But you can’t do any thumping if you’re not in proper position first.
Here we see it again. Johnson, at left inside backer, follows the pulling guard on another one-back power run. Rather than staying square and scraping patiently, he gets across the ball too fast and is washed out of the play by a blocker:
This is an issue of which Steelers’ linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky seems aware. Olsavsky was complimentary of Johnson following the draft, particularly when it came to his aggressiveness, when he said the following:
Olsavsky sees what we all do — a player who goes hard to the football. The line that caught my attention, however, is the following:
Blockers are more proficient in the NFL, but that just takes technique.
Olsavsky seems excited about Johnson’s willingness to attack. He should be. Johnson is the epitome of a “downhill” backer. But Olsavsky suggests that, while the effort is there, Johnson’s technique needs work and that some of the things he got away with in college will not fly in the pros. A few of these clips confirm this. Johnson will have to marry his desire with better discipline and technique to be an effective NFL run-defender.
In the end, though, the Steelers seem happy to have acquired an athletic Buck linebacker who is fast and physical. Johnson’s 4.57 forty yard dash clocked fifth among all linebackers who entered the 2021 draft. It allows him to make plays like the one below that neither Williams nor Spillane are equipped to do consistently:
Johnson represents an athletic upgrade from Williams and Spillane at the Buck position. The fact he needs some technique work to hone his craft means it’s unlikely he’ll unseat either as the starter in 2021. But he could see reps when the Steelers want more speed on the field, particularly in the role Mark Barron occupied in 2019 as the Dime backer in passing situations. And he will certainly see playing time on special teams, where his speed and tackling ability will be an asset.
It’s hard to say whether Johnson can become a fixture at the Buck. Fourth round picks are rarely shoe-ins to become starters, and Johnson will need to use his hands more consistently and play with better discipline. However, if he can take over, he would pair with Devin Bush to give the Steelers an incredibly fast duo who can play sideline-to-sideline as well as any tandem in the game. While he is far from a finished product, Johnson shows enough potential for Steelers’ fans to be optimistic about his ability to be an impact player in Pittsburgh.