In what looks to be Drew Brees’s last season in the NFL, the New Orleans Saints franchise is focused on a deep playoff run that sends their future Hall of Fame quarterback out on top.
In order to accomplish that feat, the Saints defense will be heavily called upon to limit the offensive attack of Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the third time this season on Sunday night and possibly continue doing so against the high powered offense of Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game.
Employing the likes of Janoris Jenkins, Alex Anzalone, and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in large capacities throughout the year, the University of Florida is heavily rooted within the Saints unit in 2020.
With each player needing to carry their weight in order for the Saints defense to halt the dynamic Bucs passing attack, no player is a more essential X-factor to New Orleans’s success than the king of trash talk, Gardner-Johnson.
Recording 161 tackles, 15.5 TFL, four sacks, nine interceptions, 12 passes defended, and three touchdowns in three seasons at the University of Florida, Gardner-Johnson made a name for himself as a rangey coverage man that possessed elite ball instincts.
Putting together his best college campaign in his final season as a Gator, Gardner-Johnson was a significant factor for Dan Mullen's success in year one as the Gators head coach led Florida to a 10-3 record one season following the team's 4-7 showing in 2017.
Playing STAR at UF in 2018, Gardner-Johnson was given free rein to attack ball carriers down towards the line of scrimmage or be a lurking ball hawk in coverage, exemplified by these interceptions against Michigan in Peach Bowl.
Originally regarded as a borderline top-50 player in the 2018 draft, the Florida defensive back was plagued by what many viewed as a tendency to take plays off at times, especially in run support. Coupled with abysmal tackling in his early career repping the orange and blue, Gardner-Johnson fell down many draft boards despite evident flashes of excellence in 2018.
Drafted by the Saints in the 4th round with the 105th overall pick in 2019, CJGJ has proved to be a steal for Sean Payton and company, sitting as a consistent piece to the NO defense's success since his arrival.
Despite easing his way into the NFL game with a sparing amount of snaps early on, Gardner-Johnson still saw action in all 16 regular-season games in 2019, tallying eight pass breakups and one interception during that span.
As a result, the Florida product found his niche in the same place he found it college, earning his way to a starting position and running with the opportunity at slot corner. Accounting for the third-most tackles on the team throughout the 2020 season—behind Demario Davis and Malcolm Jenkins—with 66, Gardner-Johnson added 5 tackles for loss, one sack, 13 PBUs, and one interception to his resumé in year two.
Carrying that built momentum into the postseason, Gardner-Johnson led the Saints in tackles (8) in the wild card round victory over the Chicago Bears, six of which coming as solo tackles in the open field.
Providing loads of versatility to the New Orleans secondary, Gardner-Johnson shows traits of an ultimate game-changer.
Credited with top-tier ball skills coming out of college, Gardner-Johnson’s instinctual ability to make plays is shown above.
Straying away from his assignment, Gardner-Johnson plays the eyes of veteran Matt Ryan to jump in front of this pass for the first interception of his NFL career.
Immediately turning upfield into a ball carrier, Johnson presents the Saints defense with a dynamic piece whenever the ball finds its way into his hands. Despite falling off of his assignment, his high-risk, high reward mentality helps him make an impact in every possible way, a dire need for a team with their eyes set on the Super Bowl.
In this example, his technical skills as a coverage man are on display against the Kansas City Chiefs speedster Mecole Hardman. Despite being beaten downfield for what looks like a big gain for Andy Reid’s offense, Gardner-Johnson shows excellent recovery skills to flip the script mid-play.
Being able to recover on a slightly underthrown ball from KC quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Gardner-Johnson uses active hands to dislodge the football from Hardman’s grasp.
Playing with relentless effort whether he’s in practice or postseason football, Gardner-Johnson has put to rest the concerns about his motor coming out of the college ranks.
In fact, he has become the energizer bunny of the Saints defense. Coupling loads of talent with an abundance of attitude, Gardner-Johnson has built a brand as the top trash talker in the league.
As a result, extracurricular activities between plays have followed him closely throughout his short NFL career, especially this season.
Experiencing confrontations on at least three separate occasions this season—two coming against the Bears Javon Wims and Anthony Miller (where each threw a punch at Gardner-Johnson and were ejected from the contest) and one in practice against former All-Pro wide receiver and his teammate Michael Thomas—his chirping goes beyond senseless banter.
Instead, it’s a mental battle that he has mastered to a tee.
Making constant back-and-forth with opposing wide receivers an element of his game, he provides an attitude to the Saints that any championship team must carry. He’s the Saints version of Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bulls Swiss army knife of the 90s.
He’s a guy no one wants to play against, but one everyone wants to play with. Not because he’s some all-world shutdown corner—not diminishing the fact that he has performed very well all season long—but simply because he’s a thorn in the side of any team he faces.
Neither were nor will be their team's headlining act, with each squad possessing loads of talent, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen for Rodman and Cam Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, Malcolm Jenkins, Demario Davis, et cetera for Gardner-Johnson.
However, if the Saints look to finally get over the hump that has stopped them in their tracks in the past three postseasons, Gardner-Johnson’s impact is crucial, similarly to Rodman's in combatting the Bad Boy Pistons. Doing so by continuing to toe the line and not crossing it in a way that can hurt the team, Gardner-Johnson provides the Saints defense a do-it-all piece that’s willing to do the dirty work needed for the unit to succeed.
As a result, the Saints defense can aid an aging Brees to reach the Super Bowl for a second time in his historic career through Gardner-Johnson and everything his play encompasses.
In a matchup with Antonio Brown Sunday evening, Gardner-Johnson will have a full plate on his hands but will still look to rattle the documented unbalanced wideout. At this point, there has been no indication he can’t handle the challenge(s) set to come in these late stages of the Saints season.