Fangio Explains Why He Waited So Long To Play Broncos LB Alexander Johnson
The Denver Broncos defense was one of the most disappointing aspects of the team's 0-4 start to this season. With the arrival of X's and O's czar Vic Fangio, the expectation was that a Broncos defense that had regressed significantly in 2018 would storm back with a vengeance this year.
That's not how it's shaken out, though, especially in the first quarter of this season. Whether it be due to a coach still figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel, or a collection of players still assimilating the new scheme, or the injury bug — or even a dearth of talent — it took a while before the Broncos came even close to 'clicking' on defense.
One of the thorns in the Broncos' side was the defense's inability to stop the run with starting inside linebacker Todd Davis sidelined with a calf injury to open the season. The Broncos gave up 250 yards on the ground from Weeks 1 and 2, while opposing quarterbacks successfully neutralized the pass rush with a quick-passing attack.
With Josey Jewell as the other incumbent starter at ILB, and Joe Jones also sidelined with a triceps injury, I honestly expected to see Alexander Johnson tapped by Fangio to start while Davis healed up. Instead, Fangio made the curious decision to play Corey Nelson, whom the Broncos literally signed eight days before the season opener.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who had spent the entire offseason, training camp and preseason under Fangio's wing, playing in the complex scheme, was kept on ice and relegated to special teams. When Todd Davis finally returned to the starting lineup in Week 3 at Green Bay, Johnson didn't even dress. He was a healthy scratch.
Josey Jewell went down with a hamstring injury in Week 3, which also caused him to miss most of Week 4 and once again, it was Nelson who the Broncos cast into the breach. Relinquishing 269 rushing yards to the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 4 likely was the straw that broke the camel's back, making plain to Fangio and company that Nelson couldn't cut the mustard.
In the wake of Nelson's ineffectiveness and Jewell's lingering injury, Fangio finally made the decision to start Johnson in Week 5 on the road vs. the L.A. Chargers.
The results were astounding — in the most positive way possible. Johnson was a tackling machine, racking up nine tackles (six solo), while defensing two passes and intercepting Philip Rivers in the end zone. It earned Johnson not only a game ball (a gift presented by GM John Elway to Fangio for his first career win as a head coach), but also the highest individual grade Pro Football Focus has handed out to a Broncos player in 2019.
With Johnson on the field, the Chargers were limited to just 35 yards rushing and just six points scored by the offense. Now, that's not to credit Johnson with 100% of the Broncos' defensive success in Week 5 but he played a big part in it, no doubt.
So, with how night-and-day the Broncos defense was in Week 5 with Alexander Johnson in the lineup, it begs the question; what took so long for Fangio to pull the trigger on playing the second-year linebacker?
On Monday following the Broncos' 20-13 victory over the Chargers, Fangio answered the question with candor.
“He’s a young guy who needs to master his craft a little bit better, meaning assignment-wise and details, but I always knew he was going to eventually get in there somehow someway because he does have talent," Fangio said. "The worst thing you can sometimes do with a guy like that is get him in there too early for a lot of reasons. One, he might not be ready, and he might think he had it made. He needed to earn some stripes on the special teams and improve there. I had a feeling he would go in and play well yesterday. Now, was he perfect? You saw a lot of good plays, but the plays you didn’t notice—there were some accidents ready to happen that didn’t get exploited and he needs to clean those up. That’s part of the reason, not the only reason, that he hadn’t played much earlier.”
There were multiple reasons Fangio resisted playing Johnson and one that he didn't mention is the penchant of almost all NFL coaches to, when in doubt, lean on veterans. Nelson might not be a household name, and he himself only had six NFL starts before Fangio played him in Week 1, but he was a veteran nonetheless.
Fangio clearly has a high regard for Johnson, though. You could see that in his dogged determination to give Johnson the game ball from his first win as a head coach, singling him out in the locker room after the game.
And maybe Johnson did need to earn his stripes. After all, he's only one year removed from entering the NFL as a college free agent with the Broncos after spending three-plus years out of football while he fought for his freedom in a courtroom in the face of a rape charge (eventually acquitted completely). But he was a star at the University of Tennessee who probably would have been a late day two, early day three draft pick had he not gotten falsely accused of rape.
I believe that Fangio wanted Johnson to earn his role on defense but I also think we'd be kidding ourselves to dismiss the fact that Johnson had zero starts in the NFL and Fangio was desperately trying to win. Sometimes push actually does come down to shove and with his back to a wall, Fangio finally had the clarity to play the immensely talented Johnson.
The rest, as they say, is history. Johnson's first career start was a tour de force but let's see if he can duplicate that level of play in Week 6 when the Tennessee Titans come to town, before we crown him the Broncos' next Al Wilson.