Analyzing Broncos LB Alexander Johnson's Breakout Performance In Week 5
After Denver Broncos inside linebacker Alexander Johnson put up some impressive numbers (six solo tackles, three assists and an interception) against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 5, many fans have wondered why the second-year player didn't get to start from Week 1.
I think it's a combination of Vic Fangio wanting to go with a veteran on the field to start things off (particularly with Todd Davis missing the first two games) and wanting inexperienced players to keep working in practice to prove they deserve to start. It goes back to the thought process that a younger player gets to start because they have earned the job, as much as the veteran plays his way out of the job.
Going back to the preseason, Johnson demonstrated he was a quality run defender but he had some issues with coverage. And in watching the film of the Chargers game, there are a couple of instances in which Johnson left somebody open, so there is still some work for him to do there, as Fangio has pointed out multiple times since Sunday when remarking about the player's performance.
However, when Johnson had to step up to make a play, he did it on a number of occasions. When he did, he demonstrated his ability to see what develops and was quick to get himself into position to at least stop plays for a short gain — and in a couple of cases, kept the Chargers from getting touchdowns.
Let's take a look at a few plays in which Johnson showed the potential he has to be the every-down off-ball linebacker that the Broncos have been without for some time.
Play 1: 8:18 | First Quarter
During the preseason, Johnson showed mostly good play in stopping the run. He wasn't in on a lot of stops, but this one is worth noting because of the patience he displays.
Melvin Gordon takes the handoff and the fullback comes forward to block for him. Johnson meets the blocker and Gordon cuts to his left.
However, Johnson remains patient and is able to shed his blocker to get to Gordon and stop him for a three-yard gain. Had Johnson not remained patient and been able to shed the block, Gordon likely has a bigger gain on the play. It's good to see Johnson demonstrate that patience, because that's important in ensuring you still have a shot, even when you are met by a blocker.
Play 2: 8:02 | Fourth Quarter
I'm going to jump ahead to the fourth quarter because it shows Johnson making a play in which it's hard to believe he got a tackle for a loss. This required a quick reaction when he as he was dropping back in coverage.
You'll notice that Johnson is eight yards off the line of scrimmage, indicating the Broncos expect Philip Rivers to attack downfield. However, Keenan Allen, who is lined up on the right side, turns to his left on the snap and runs behind the offensive line.
Rivers is looking downfield, but protection is starting to break down. Meanwhile, Allen is now open behind the line of scrimmage and Rivers opts to throw in his direction. There are no Bronco defenders in the area.
But Johnson follows Rivers, notices Allen, and comes downhill about 10 yards. Rivers' throw to Allen isn't good because of the pressure, so that allows Johnson to catch Allen behind the line of scrimmage to get a tackle for a loss. But even if Rivers gets a better throw, Johnson's reaction and hustle give him the opportunity to hold Allen to a short gain.
There was offensive holding on the play, but because of Johnson's efforts, the Broncos got a situation in which they could decline the penalty. That Johnson was able to make the play, given how far downfield he was, is impressive.
Play 3: 2:14 | Third Quarter
Situation: 3rd-&-2 (red zone)
This is the play I'm sure every Broncos fan remembers the most. What I want to look at is Johnson's actions before the snap.
Notice how Johnson is gesturing to teammate Todd Davis before Rivers gets the ball. It appears Johnson has noticed what's likely coming on the play. When the ball is snapped, Davis goes to the right while Johnson stays in the middle.
Sure enough, Rivers looks to his right but finds nobody open. Meanwhile, there's a receiver coming across the middle and Rivers thinks he has his man. But he doesn't notice that Johnson hasn't moved and his throw is off. This allows Johnson to step in front and make the interception.
That Johnson's gesture before the snap suggests that he saw something develop is a credit to him and an important aspect of what allows a linebacker to communicate to teammates what to look for on a given play.
Play 4: 0:11 | Second Quarter
Situation: 3rd-&-3 (red zone)
As great as the interception was, this is my favorite of Johnson's plays in the Chargers game. This happened the play before Kareem Jackson forced an Austin Ekeler fumble to prevent a touchdown as time expired, but Johnson did his part to prevent an Ekeler touchdown, too.
Pre-snap, Johnson is looking to his left and, upon first glance, it doesn't appear he's ready for the play. However, he notices Ekeler at the line of scrimmage and his movement suggests he realizes Ekeler is the likely target.
Rivers goes with a quick snap, hoping to catch the Broncos off guard, but Johnson sees Ekeler move to his right and follows him. Indeed, Rivers throws to Ekeler, but Johnson is immediately upon the running back and tackles him at the 1-yard line.
If Johnson doesn't stay step for step with Ekeler, this is likely a touchdown. So Johnson deserves as much credit as Jackson for holding the Chargers out of the end zone to close the first half.
Johnson does have a few areas to improve upon with coverage, but on the plays in which he executed, he not only displayed his talent, but his intelligence in reading plays and anticipating what's going to happen.
The second-year player has certainly earned more playing time, but still has room to grow and needs to keep showing consistency. But the plays he did make demonstrate the potential he has to be perhaps one of the better off-ball linebackers in the NFL.
The good thing about Johnson's play is that the Broncos don't have to rush Josey Jewell back onto the field. While it's easy to think that Jewell will just take Todd Davis' starting job, it's better that Jewell become part of a rotation with Davis, leaving Davis as the two-down thumper which best utilizes his talents, while Jewell comes in on third-down plays in coverage.
But Johnson could cement his position as an every-down player if he continues to show he can make plays like he did against the Chargers. If so, the Broncos might finally have that impact off-ball linebacker they haven't had for some time.