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Has Alexander Johnson Already Become Denver's Best Inside Linebacker?

Alexander Johnson has been impressive in two starts. But is he already the best ILB on the team?

There is a reason Alexander Johnson has been a playmaker for the Denver Broncos the past two games. Instincts. Using this word may sound mysterious because having instinct doesn’t seem like a tangible entity.

It indicates something unmeasurable or invisible and describes something innate or inherited, like a T-Rex knowing how to attack its prey without being taught. It invokes phrases like 'an unteachable skill' or “something you are born with.” However, that isn’t totally true.

It indicates something unmeasurable or invisible and describes something innate or inherited, like a T-Rex knowing how to attack its prey without being taught. It invokes phrases like 'an unteachable skill' or 'something you are born with'. However, that isn’t totally true.

Instincts from an inside linebacker perspective can be described as trusting what you see, then reacting quickly and decisively. It is true that some people are born with a more acute ability to do this than others.

Some people have a knack for deciphering information quickly and the ability to make a quick decision regardless of the profession they have chosen. So, one could say it is something a person is born with more so than other people.

However, this skill is greatly enhanced on the football field by using proper reads with tenacious film study. Players are often described as having a natural feel for the game, but what appears as a natural feel for the game for fans watching the plays unfold is really what I just described. Those players trust the information that is being presented and react quickly and decisively because they are prepared and use proper reads.

In two games, Johnson has shown to be the Broncos' best inside linebacker for this exact reason and he has gotten better from the first game to the second. From reviewing the film of the Tennessee Titans game I have two plays that provide ample evidence. Meaning, instincts can be taught and measured.

The first thing an inside linebacker should be taught is that his first read is the guards. More specifically the guard’s head. If a linebacker is peeking into the backfield, he can be fooled.

The guard’s intentions are usually crystal clear. Where their head goes indicates the direction of a run play or it indicates a pass play. The linebacker then must react quickly and decisively to that information. Some are better at this than others.

Enter two plays where Johnson does this perfectly.

The first play came in the first quarter at 9:36.

Pre-snap, Johnson appears to know where the play is going. He is moving towards the correct gap before the ball is snapped. He could be guessing. I find that doubtful because he did the same thing more than once in this game and the previous game and was right.

Inline

If he is guessing, he is extremely lucky. More likely he is seeing something that he reviewed on film or is reacting to nuances or tendencies of players. All taught and learned.

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When the ball is snapped you can see that his first read is the guard. He is moving toward the gap immediately because the guard’s head is down (run play) and moving to Johnson’s right (meaning the play is designed to run between him and the center who is moving in the opposite direction).

Johnson doesn’t make the tackle on this play, but disrupted it so much that Derrick Henry is stopped for a loss. Tackle numbers in the box score don’t always describe how good a player has played.

The second play came in the first quarter at 2:54.

Johnson reads quickly that this is a pass play because the guard’s heads pop up as they set into their pass-blocking stance. Johnson is sinking into his backpedal because he has reacted quickly and decisively to that information. Compare him to Davis again.

You can see Davis is peeking into the backfield. He gets fooled by play action and is coming downhill, expecting a run. He is already at a disadvantage. Johnson isn’t.

He gets to his spot quickly and is able to blanket the Titan’s player coming across the middle. Davis is unfortunately still playing catch up. Luckily Marcus Mariota throws a terrible pass, but if he hits Henry with proper timing, this play could be a first down. Had Davis read pass right away he could have been on the screen like white on rice.

The Takeaway

Alexander Johnson is already a very instinctive linebacker. His game film is littered with the plays described above. Having this ability makes up for his lack of sheer speed.

Other NFL linebackers have had great careers with a lack of straight-line speed because they had great instincts. The more playing time he gets the more playing the position will come naturally.

If his third game is anything like his first two, Broncos fans should be excited. His play should continue to ascend as the season grows longer. John Elway found another undrafted gem.

Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasHallNFL and @MileHighHuddle