Xavier Rhodes was busy playing cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts in recent years so when he signed with the Bills’ practice squad on Sept. 28, he arrived with little knowledge of how the team used Taron Johnson.
Rhodes discovered Johnson, the Bills’ nickel back, is deployed unlike most of his NFL contemporaries. While watching a workout, Rhodes saw the scout team use “12” (two tight end) and “13” (three tight end) personnel.
“We’re still in nickel?” Rhodes recalled asking. “Oh, OK, this is different.”
Different? Totally. Effective? Absolutely.
Entering Thursday’s game against the Detroit Lions, Johnson has played a team-high 606 defensive snaps (92%) and has started all 10 games, a feat matched only by defensive lineman DaQuan Jones and edge rusher Von Miller on a unit that has been a revolving door of participants because of injuries. Johnson’s 59 tackles are third on the team.
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Defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier’s comfort level using a “nickel” (five defensive backs) package is a direct byproduct of his comfort level with Johnson handling myriad tasks within the same game and sometimes within the same possession.
“He’s smart, he’s instinctive and he’s tough,” General Manager Brandon Beane told The Buffalo News. “Some guys are going to be more of a ‘cover nickel.’ He has coverage skills, but he plays the game almost like a box safety. He’ll throw himself in there against guys like (running backs) Derrick Henry (of Tennessee) and A.J. Dillon (of Green Bay).”
Smarts. Instincts. Toughness. All are called upon Johnson. The built-up knowledge of schemes and route concepts, which run the gamut. The instincts to adjust his assignment based on pre-snap motion and shifts and then post-snap. And the toughness to be willing to use his 192-pound frame as an enforcer against bigger men.
Johnson allowed a 25-yard touchdown to Cleveland’s Amari Cooper on the opening possession Sunday (great catch beat solid coverage), but rebounded to play 70 of 75 snaps and make eight tackles, his highest total since nine against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 1.
“For the most part, he’s been his stellar self,” Frazier said earlier this month. “Just creating havoc for offenses because of his ability to be able to match up a slot receiver, but yet come in and play the run.”
Outside to inside
Johnson became a starter at Weber State (a Big Sky Conference program in Ogden, Utah) halfway through his true freshman season and broke up nine passes. As a sophomore, he set a school record with 12 pass break-ups, creating a trend of being around the football. A junior season of 12 break-ups (which led the conference) was capped by first-team All-America recognition (three interceptions among his nine breakups) and Big Sky Defensive MVP as a senior.
The Bills drafted Johnson in the fourth round in 2018 and almost instantly told him he would be working at the nickel spot.
Did Johnson respond with a half-curious, half-marvel, “What?”
“I mean, yeah,” he recalled with a laugh last week in the Bills’ locker room. “I was so used to being an outside corner.”
Just as quickly, the Bills explained their rationale. Frazier and coach Sean McDermott wanted to shift into using nickel more often as their base defense even if the opponent deployed heavier groupings, like an extra tight end (or two).
“But you’ve got to have the right person,” Frazier said.
Johnson was the right person. His video showed a player with the physical skills and want-to level to play in tighter quarters even if he wasn’t asked to at Weber State.
“I was always physical playing outside and a willing tackler and tackled well; I think that’s what they saw,” Johnson said. “And not saying I’m the biggest guy, but they wanted a bigger (defensive back) for the run fits.”
Johnson started only nine games in his first two NFL years (899 defensive snaps), but then Frazier said the Bills “fully invested” to the nickel-as-a-base-package-player plan. Johnson’s play time has increased from 57% as a rookie to 63%, 77%, 85% and the current 92%.
“When we committed to it, it just helped us take off as a defense,” Frazier said. “So much of what we do is matchup driven in our league, where offenses are trying to create mismatches. Once we made the move to go in this direction, it eliminated a lot of that. They couldn’t just put us out in space and try to work on a linebacker who may not have the cover skills.”
A shifty running back against a linebacker? A mismatch. An athletic tight end who has receiverlike route-running skills against a linebacker? Trouble. Johnson, in the first season of a three-year, $24 million contract, handles those responsibilities for the Bills.
“It just worked out well,” Frazier said. “The timing of our drafting him and then his maturation as a player and our wanting to go in this direction because of what we were seeing with the league. … It was a little trepidation (early on) – people going well, ‘What if they start doing this? What if they start doing that? All these ‘what ifs?’ But we committed to it. We wanted to see it through. And it’s worked out.”
'A ton of heart'
Roll the video of Buffalo's win over Cleveland on Sunday and follow Johnson around the field. If only the coach’s tape had a glowing halo over No. 7. It would be a lot easier to track him.
There he is playing off-the-ball zone coverage.
There he is playing press coverage against a receiver.
There he is following a receiver across the field in motion.
There he is tracking a tight end in man coverage.
There he is blitzing Browns quarterback Jacoby Brissett to post a pressure.
And there he is, wait for it, basically playing outside linebacker, responsible for defending the run.
“He’s unique in that way,” Frazier said. “The fact that he can tackle a linebacker and cover like a corner – and he’s a smart player, too – that allows us to be able to keep him on the field no matter what the (offensive) personnel is. There aren’t a lot of guys like that, but that’s the skill set that he has.
“We’re fortunate to have him.”
Digging into his play-to-play responsibilities against the Browns, Johnson’s first tackle came as basically an outside linebacker, his second when he beat a receiver’s block attempt. In coverage, he would track a tight end down the field and also hand off a receiver in a zone call. He also blitzed three times.
Johnson has played every snap in three games and at least 97% of the plays in six games. Compare that to other nickels in the league. Cincinnati’s Mike Hilton is at 76%, New England’s Jonathan Jones 71% and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Bryce Callahan 62%.
“When I get the game plan (on Wednesdays), I’m just trying to figure out how I can make an impact,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, I’m going against a bigger, stronger guy and then a quicker, speed guy. It’s really just locking in and trying to not to play anybody differently and just using my fundamentals and technique. That should protect me against any type of receiver and any type of tight end I go against.”
If the Bills have a second-half lead, that means more coverage for Johnson. If the Bills are in a tight game and an opponent can stick to their plan, he gets more involved defending the run.
“My role can change within a game,” he said. “Tremendous pride (in being versatile). I want to make them right by keeping me on the field against bigger guys. I’m not the biggest guy, but I try to make up for it with speed and physicality and my heart.”
According to the NFL, 25 of Johnson’s tackles (42.4%) have been in the run game. On certain plays, the Bills assign Johnson an interior gap, which has earned him the admiration of the Bills’ defensive line room. They see a smaller guy who packs a big punch.
“He’s extremely physical,” defensive line coach Eric Washington said. “He’s a sure tackler and then you turn around and he’s out there covering one of the fastest guys in the league. We really admire him and a lot of times, he will be the person that comes in and takes the guard off (a defensive tackle). What makes him special is the fact that he’s really good at it and we lose nothing with him having to rotate inside.”
Johnson has four tackles for lost yardage and his interception clinched the Week 6 win at Kansas City, earning him a game ball that sat in his locker last week. He wants to clean up his tackling (seven misses per The News’ charting).
Since joining the Bills, Rhodes – a first-team All Pro in 2017 and a three-time Pro Bowl selection – has joined the crowd of people impressed with Johnson.
“A ton of heart and I have a ton of respect for the way he plays,” Rhodes said. “He’s going against 300-pound guys and getting in the thick of things and making plays. That’s impressive.”
News Sports Writer Katherine Fitzgerald contributed to this story.