Early in his career, whenever defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson was brought up in conversation, coach Mike Zimmer seemed to offer a consistent assessment: He had the skills to succeed, but he needed to refine his technique.
“Sometimes he still is a little bit like a bull in a china shop,” Zimmer said last season. “He just wants to go, go, go. We had to get him to understand where his gap is, and how he’s playing it, and where his hand should be, and things like that.”
That’s something Johnson has started to grasp this season as his playing time has increased steadily. He has done so by trying to “follow in the footsteps” of guys like Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson before him.
“I just have to really make the most of my opportunity,” Johnson said. “There were guys before me who were really great players here. Now that it’s my turn, I just have to keep improving and showing that I’m a great player in this league. Which I know I am.”
That was on display last weekend against Detroit as he disrupted a third-and-inches play near the goal line and stopped running back Adrian Peterson for loss. That kept the Lions out of the end zone and forced a field goal.
“I don’t think it was really anything special I did,” Johnson said. “Just playing my blocks and getting more vertical up the field. That’s what (co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson) has been emphasizing all week when we get in those situations. I found myself in that situation, and I just went vertical and made the play.”
That type of physicality against the run is something Patterson has come to expect from Johnson since he was selected in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He has always been a run-stuffer capable of blowing up a play.
“He throws his body around, so he’s always involved in either finding a way to keep the linebackers free, or he’s going to fight like heck to get to the ball,” Patterson said. “I think the biggest thing Jaleel has done this season is play with more consistency. He’s consistently in the right place as far as where he’s supposed to be and when he’s supposed to be there. I think that’s the biggest improvement of his game at this point so far.”
That same thing can be said about the defense as a whole. After losing a number of starters this offseason — from Joseph to defensive end Everson Griffen to cornerback Xavier Rhodes — some of the younger players are finally starting to hold their own.
“I think we’re playing at a high level right now,” Johnson said. “There’s things we can fix. That’s always going to happen. I just think now that the younger guys are really starting to catch on, and they are starting to grasp what the coaches are saying and what the coaches are teaching.”