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Bleacher Report – Vikings

Tom Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the NFL at his position

By Arif Hasan


The Minnesota Vikings have not just struggled through adversity this year, but have succeeded in spite of it. The undefeated Vikings might be the poster child for “Next Man Up”—so much so that fans may already be sick of reading the phrase—and as a result have a bevy of players on the team that aren’t familiar faces or names.

Tom Johnson has been on the team for a few years after a three-year stint in New Orleans where he saw the field on limited occasion, on average about a third of the Saints’ defensive snaps. Before that, he was an arena league, CFL and even NFL Europe player hoping to revive a career after getting cut from Colts training camp as an undrafted free agent.

When he was brought into training camp for the Vikings in 2014, it seemed unlikely he would even make the team much less play a key role on a dominant defense.

For a defense stacked with first- and second-rounders—all three linebackers, two starting corners and two backups, a safety and a defensive lineman—including the player he replaced, Johnson’s status as an undrafted free agent is pretty rare on the elite defense.

But he’s not merely riding the coattails of the talented players; he’s contributing in a big way to the Vikings’ defensive success. It’s easy to sing the plaudits of Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes or Everson Griffen—and they deserve them—but without consistent success by other members of the defense, the Vikings would only be good, not great, on that side of the ball.

Players like Tom Johnson ensure that success, and Johnson has turned into one of the most underrated players at his position in the league.

It’s hard to overcome the shine of massive successes like Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox, Jurrell Casey or Gerald McCoy, but Johnson has been performing his specific role as well as those players have been performing their more expansive roles.

Johnson is primarily a pressure producer for the Vikings. Historically, Mike Zimmer defenses have focused on interior pressure, so generating movement in the pocket from the inside is paramount in pass defense.

Consider the fact that Geno Atkins was always more important than Carlos Dunlap or Michael Johnson in Cincinnati, or that La’Roi Glover was more impactful than any of the defensive ends for Dallas’ best defense in the Mike Zimmer era (2003).

The fact that Sharrif Floyd has missed so many games due to knee injury should have been a big blow to the Vikings defense, but the capable play of backups Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen have restored what could have otherwise been a major fault in the defense’s design.

While Floyd would have been expected to contribute as Atkins and Glover did, as complete defensive tackles designed to attack both the running backs and quarterbacks, Stephen has been a run defense specialist, while Johnson is in on passing downs much more often.

In fact, Johnson rushes the passer more often than any other defensive tackle in the league relative to the number of times opponents pass the ball. He’s not often on the field when the other team decides to run the ball, only taking 19.6 percent of his snaps against the run.

The Vikings have designed it this way; they rotate Johnson in when other teams are in pass-heavy personnel or in obvious passing situations. The Vikings have faced a pass attempt on 67.6 percent of their defensive plays, the second-most in the NFL—which means the imbalance between the pass rate of the opposing offense and the pass-rushing rate of Tom Johnson is 12.8 percentage points.

The next-largest differences in favor of pass-rushing are the Jaguars’ Sen’Derrick Marks (10.1 percentage points) and Cleveland’s Xavier Cooper (9.1 percentage points). Johnson is by far the most specialized pass-rushing defensive tackle in the NFL.

Within that role, he’s been phenomenal.

Initially, we can look at Johnson statistically.

Out of the 60 interior defensive line players with at least 20 snaps per game who played the majority of their snaps out of the nose tackle position, Johnson ranks tenth in pressure rate—with pressure on 11.3 percent of his passing snaps.

That’s very difficult to believe; that puts him next to Geno Atkins (11.9 percent) and Jurrell Casey (12.0 percent). The Packers’ Mike Daniels (10.5 percent) and the Jets’ Leonard Williams (10.3 percent) are just below him. Those are all Pro Bowl-quality players and his ability to produce pressure at their rate is astonishing.

What is more surprising is that he hasn’t slacked as a run defender despite that being a significant weakness of his coming out of the 2015 season, where he was well below average in terms of holding point and creating tackles in the run game.

Though only in on 39 running plays (the fewest of any defensive tackles with 20 snaps per game), he generated four stops against running backs and anchored better this year than he did last year.

If one looks at stop rate—the percentage of running plays in which a defender prevents a running success with a tackle—as well as the rate at which a defensive tackle puts pressure on the quarterback on passing plays, one gets a more complete look at a defensive tackle’s contribution.

I separated out nose tackles like Linval Joseph, who man the gaps between the center and the guards, from other interior defenders like Tom Johnson, who attack the guard-tackle gaps.

Then, I compared the pressure rates and stop rates among all of those players to each other and came up with relative scores, like baseball’s “plus” system to normalize statistics across eras. In this case, 100 is average, while 15 points in either direction represents one standard deviation from that average—115 means a better score than 84 percent of the population and 130 means a better score than 97.7 percent of the population. Meanwhile a score of 100 is better than half the population and 85 is only better than 16 percent of the population.

So a run stop score of 97 and a pressure score of 115 averages out to a score of 106, which is pretty good (in this case, better than 65 percent of the population). How did Tom Johnson do? His aggregate score was 111.9, right below Malik Jackson and right above Geno Atkins. His run stop rate is actually better than his pressure rate, though that’s naturally misleading because of how few running plays he’s been on the field for.

That ranks sixth of all three-technique tackles in the NFL, out of 60 qualifiers.

Does that mean Johnson is the sixth-best defensive tackle in the NFL? No, and it’s probably not particularly close to that conclusion. But it’s demonstrative of the fact that he’s been incredibly effective in his specific, narrow role for the Vikings—and one of the keys to the top defense in the league.

A film breakdown will show that Johnson’s success is a combination of his own natural ability, the nature of the scheme to uniquely enable him and the pure talent of the team around him.





The above GIFs generally demonstrate, respectively, that scheme, technical skill, balance and power all contribute to Johnson’s skill. In the past, Mike Zimmer has praised Johnson for being “slippery” and his ability to avoid contact at the snap allows him to define the interaction.

Not only that, Johnson demonstrates an array of pass-rushing moves, from the dip-and-rip above, to a spin move, a bull-rush, a stab-and-grab and more. That technical variety and his surprising athleticism give him a lot of leeway in how he wants to attack offensive linemen.

His ability to move laterally and upfield with quickness and technical precision allow the Vikings to use him in a variety of ways, which means that despite his narrow role he has a broad range of uses. That gives the defense added flexibility in how they design pressure schemes and where they attack.

That creativity has been a vital part of the defensive design and Johnson’s ability to step in for Floyd and perform his role better than any other backup defensive tackle in the NFL — and better than many starters — is profoundly important for the design and function of the NFL’s top defense.

Tom Johnson may not be an every-down player, or a top-ten player at his position like a stunning number of his teammates are, but his ability within his specific role has helped launch the defense from good to great.

Eighteen pressures and two sacks—on pace for 58 pressures and six sacks over the course of a full season—is no accident, and for a defensive tackle worthy of high praise. Tom Johnson deserves more attention.

The post Tom Johnson is one of the most underrated players in the NFL at his position appeared first on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.

Source:: 1500 ESPN Sportswire

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