How Kevin Johnson has found the balance between playmaking and availability

Buffalo Bills cornerback Kevin Johnson (36) touchdown Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers, August 16, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium.  
Photo by Bill Wippert
Buffalo Bills cornerback Kevin Johnson (36) touchdown Buffalo Bills at Carolina Panthers, August 16, 2019 at Bank of America Stadium. Photo by Bill Wippert

It could be argued as both a positive and a negative in the career of Kevin Johnson. The long, angular corner has the preferred body type and athleticism needed in an NFL cornerback. The fact that he combined that physical ability with a hard-hitting playing style was seen as a rare and coveted asset by NFL scouting departments.

That physical style combined with elite athletic traits made him a first-round pick. That physical style has also cost Kevin Johnson games in his first four seasons. Twenty-nine games to be exact, out of a possible 64 in his career. Johnson has been a sideline spectator for almost half of his time in the league.

Johnson’s maladies appeared to put him at rock bottom last season. After suffering a concussion in the 2018 preseason, the former first-round cornerback was cleared for the 2018 regular season opener against New England.

Starting at right cornerback, Johnson sustained a second concussion when he came up in run support to stop Cordarrelle Patterson, who took a hand-off around the left side of the Patriots formation in the second half.

“I was just trying to beat Cordarelle Patterson to the spot on a jet sweep to the other side of the field,” said Johnson. “He’s a physical player with a physical running style.”

Johnson prided himself on being a physical player too and wasn’t one to back down from a one-on-one confrontation on any given play.

But Johnson got the worst of the hit. His second concussion in less than a month, Johnson’s 2018 campaign was over not long after it started. He would miss the rest of the season.

In a league where the number one ability is availability, Johnson, despite being a former first-round draft choice and just 27-years old was not a hot commodity on the open market as a free agent this past offseason. He knew a one-year prove-it deal was the likely path he’d need to take in free agency and the Bills made a quality offer.

That combined with one of the best sports science departments in the league with a cutting-edge player health, strength, rehabilitation and recovery program left Johnson intrigued with Buffalo. He knew his best chance at a more lucrative contract in the future was to be on the field for all 16 games in 2019.

The Bills organization had the proper support system for that in place off the field. On the field however, Johnson would have to take a much different approach in terms of playing style.

Head coach Sean McDermott broached the subject with Johnson when they recruited him as a free agent.

“I had a pretty good feel for who he was as a player and some of his strengths and some of the areas that we feel like he would have to adjust,” McDermott said. “In terms of adjusting, there’s history and that’s the concerning piece in Kevin’s case. History sometimes foretells future events and that’s what we have to be aware of. At the end of the day, availability is key. We have to be a healthy football team and we need our players on the field.”

After signing with Buffalo, the fifth-year cornerback resolved to take a more measured approach to tackling and making plays.

“It’s about playing smart and with better understanding of the situation on a given play and playing with better technique as far as tackling,” Johnson told Buffalobills.com. “Instead of throwing my body in there with my head down, keeping my head up and just little things like that I’m working on each day.”

In football, defensive players can’t pull up or slow down. The game simply moves too fast. That’s what makes breaking old habits difficult when you still need to play fast and physical.

“It’s a delicate balance because when you think about football you think physicality. Guys going at it,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. “But you look at what happened to Kevin a year ago, about this time and his season was wiped out after a big hit. So he has to play real smart, and we’re trying to coach him that way at the same time.”

Since the spring, Frazier, along with secondary coach John Butler and assistant secondary coach Bobby Babich, has emphasized that Johnson tackle more with his shoulders leading the contact and his head up.

“We coach tackling, but we also coach not to get your head involved in the tackle,” said Frazier. “That was part of the problem for Kevin with his previous history. So it is a fine line. You’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to tackle, but you’ve got to be smart when you tackle.”

“We have a lot of confidence in Kevin Johnson. We need to continue to stress taking the ball away on defense because we know how important that is. Kevin is a great addition to our team just as a person first and foremost, and then as a player. He continues to grow and hone his craft. Head coach Sean McDermott

Johnson admits there were times as a new player in the league where he wanted to make his mark by showing just how physical he could be. Frazier saw it in the early film he watched of Johnson as the team scouted him prior to free agency.

“That was the approach previously,” Frazier said of Johnson’s play. “I’m going to waylay this guy. He’s not going to get up. But you have to take a different approach and attitude if you want to survive in this league. You have to be premeditated in your thinking. You have to already visualize yourself making this tackle without the same approach you had previously.

“You’ve got to already see yourself making this tackle without your head involved in the play. You’re breaking some old habits. That takes some time, repetition and it takes some visualization as well. You have to see yourself tackling yourself a different way.”

Johnson’s four years of experience in the NFL have taught him a lot of things about the game that will make him an asset in Buffalo’s secondary as he appears close to locking up the team’s third cornerback spot outside behind Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace.

But the injuries that have sidelined him may have done the most in convincing Johnson to take the necessary steps to prolong his career.

“Availability and dependability are huge in this league,” Johnson said. “Understanding when to go and take those shots and understanding when to wrap guys up and get guys down are things I’m more conscious of now than I was as a younger player.”

Buffalo’s defense is reviewing the game film from their preseason opener against Indianapolis. A 1st-and-10 play late in the first quarter is up. Colts RB Nyheim Hines takes the hand-off and runs off the left end. As the play unfolds it’s not all that different from the jet sweep by Patterson in Week 1 last season.

The Bills linebackers string the play wide. Hines tries to reach the corner, but Kevin Johnson is there in run support. He breaks down, gets on Hines’ inside hip and rides him out of bounds with his left shoulder and right arm.

The result of the play is a gain of one.

Frazier turns around and praises Johnson for keeping his head out of the play and getting it across the body of Hines and holding him to a minimal gain.

“He wrapped up and kept his head out of it and I applauded it for him when we watched tape and the way he made that tackle. That should boost his confidence,” Frazier said. “The more he sees himself making those tackles without his head being involved, hopefully that’ll encourage him and he’ll tackle better.”

Johnson knows tackling that way consistently could be the difference between convincing the Bills and the rest of the league that he’s got a lot of football left in him. Of course the 70-yard interception return Johnson posted in the Bills 24-14 preseason win over Carolina is a pretty convincing reminder as well.

“We have a lot of confidence in Kevin Johnson,” said McDermott. “That play he made was a big time play for us. We need to continue to stress taking the ball away on defense because we know how important that is. Kevin is a great addition to our team just as a person first and foremost, and then as a player. He continues to grow and hone his craft.”

As great as his playmaking ability might be, Johnson fully realizes that being an effective player without jeopardizing his own availability for his team is priority number one. That’s why he’s completely committed to implementing this adaptation to his game.

“I now have a complete understanding of how to be safe and still be physical at the same time,” Johnson said. “That’s something I’ve had my mind on since I got hurt. I’ve been working on it ever since and it’s something I’ll take with me into this season.”

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