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Lawlor: Jim Johnson Was The Mastermind

Posted Jul 16, 2017

The Eagles have had some great defensive coaches over the years. Buddy Ryan drafted and developed linebacker Seth Joyner, defensive tackle Jerome Brown, defensive end Clyde Simmons, linebacker Byron Evans, and cornerback Eric Allen. Bud Carson took that group of players to new heights in 1991 when Gang Green was No. 1 in run, pass, and overall defense. Marion Campbell helped the team get to the Super Bowl in 1980 and had the Eagles as the top-ranked defense in 1981. Ray Rhodes and Emmitt Thomas had top-five defenses in 1995 and '96.

As great as those coaches were, Jim Johnson is the most beloved defensive coach in Eagles history.

Johnson ran the defense from 1999-2008. Amazingly, the Eagles were never first in yards or points allowed under him. They were No. 1 in a number of areas when you judged them over a long span. From 2000-04, the Eagles allowed the fewest points, had the most sacks, and led the league in both third-down and red zone defense. There was also postseason success, including a trip to the Super Bowl after the 2004 season.

One of the things that makes that run so special is that it happened in the era of free agency. The Eagles lost impact players like defensive end Hugh Douglas, and linebackers Jeremiah Trotter and Shawn Barber in that span. There was turnover in the secondary as cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were replaced by Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard. Players came and went, but Johnson remained at the top, adjusting his scheme to the players he had and finding the best way to get them to attack offenses. Johnson's final season with the Eagles was 2008 and that defense was one of his best. The Eagles were fourth in points allowed and third in yards.

The man could flat-out coach.

What made Johnson special? Most people focus on X's and O's. Andy Reid specifically hired him because he loved Johnson's zone blitzes. Reid referred to them as fire zones. This was a way to blitz quarterbacks, but also to play solid coverage behind the blitz. Buddy Ryan loved to attack offenses and overwhelm them. As passing offenses got more sophisticated, you couldn't do that. Teams learned how to burn the blitz.

Johnson wanted the pressure, but not the risk. He didn't create zone blitzes but was one of the first coaches to use them out of the 4-3 alignment. Any coach can use blitzes. Good coaches know how to teach players to execute them. They also know when and how to use them. A poorly timed or executed blitz can be devastating to a defense.

Johnson believed that limiting big plays was the key to good defense. If an offense was going to beat you, you had to force them to methodically march the ball down the field. He thought that the longer a drive went on, the more likely it was the offense would make a mistake. That might be a dropped pass or a holding penalty or a bad throw. Johnson got more aggressive if an offense crossed midfield. Once inside the Eagles' 40-yard line, all bets were off. Johnson would blitz any and everyone. There was no longer a fear of giving up a big play. The offense was already in scoring position. That's when it was really time to attack.

One of Johnson's favorite weapons was the double A-gap blitz. The gap to the right and left of the center is called the A-gap. Johnson would put a linebacker in each gap and have them acting as if they were going to blitz. This forced the offensive line and quarterback to adjust what they wanted to do. If the blitzers weren't picked up, they would be on top of the quarterback instantly. Pressure right up the middle is the most dangerous. Johnson would "show blitz" from this look, but sometimes both guys would drop back into coverage. Sometimes one blitzed. There were plays when they looped and attacked the other A-gap. Offenses hated dealing with the double A-gap blitz, which is still used by defenses today.

Great coaches don't just have a scheme. They know how to put together specific game plans. Johnson had some great game plans over the years. I think you have to start with the NFC title game after the 2004 season. The Falcons came to Lincoln Financial Field as a red-hot offense, putting up 31 points and more than 200 rushing yards in the previous five games. Johnson knew he had to contain quarterback Michael Vick, one of the league's most explosive playmakers. The Eagles also had to limit running back Warrick Dunn, who had run for more than 1,100 yards that season.

Johnson came up with a simple, but brilliant twist. He moved Jevon Kearse from left end to right end and flipped Derrick Burgess to the left side. Vick was a left-handed quarterback and was deadly when he took off running to his left (the right side of the defense). Putting an athlete like Kearse at right end took away Vick's normal advantage. Most defensive ends didn't have the speed or agility to handle Vick. Kearse was nicknamed The Freak for a reason.

The Eagles didn't blitz much in the game, but did use a lot of eight-man fronts. They wanted to keep the Falcons from running. Johnson would have the extra defender come into the box at the last moment so Vick would have less time to examine the defense and know what was going to happen. The Eagles dared Vick to pass, but didn't want him to know what the coverage was going to look like until the last second.

Vick averaged seven runs per game that season. The Eagles limited him to just four. The Eagles sacked Vick four times, with Burgess getting a pair of them. The ends contained Vick's running and Trotter, who returned that season, stuffed the inside run plays. The Falcons finished the game with just 202 total yards and 10 points. Atlanta led the NFL in rushing that year, but only mustered 103 yards against the Eagles. Johnson came up with a great scheme and Kearse, Burgess, and the rest of the players executed it brilliantly.

Back in 2001, the Rams had the most dynamic offense in the league. The Greatest Show on Turf won the Super Bowl in 1999 and posted gaudy numbers in 2000. The 2001 team led the league in yards and points and once again reached the Super Bowl. The Rams opened that season with a game in Philadelphia. Johnson was tasked with trying to stop a great passing attack and the dynamic running of Marshall Faulk. That's a pick-your-poison scenario. Do you focus on Kurt Warner? Do you load the box to stop Faulk?

Johnson chose to blitz. He attacked Warner all game long. That resulted in four sacks and two interceptions. The Rams were held to just 20 points and it took overtime to get to that total. I can't tell you how crazy that was back then. The Rams averaged 34 points a game in 2000. They put up 31 a game in 2001. Holding them to 17 points in regulation was a huge achievement.

Other teams blitzed the Rams but didn't have the same success. Johnson came up with a wrinkle that caught Warner and the Rams' coaches completely off-guard. Johnson had the best pair of cover corners in the league in Vincent and Taylor. He decided to do the unexpected and have both corners blitz on the same play. Coaches didn't do this. Warner normally knew how to burn the blitz, but he was so confused that he couldn't do that. The Rams were limited to just two pass plays of 20 or more yards. The Rams won the game 20-17, but Johnson's creative blitzes slowed down the explosive Rams and gave the Eagles a chance to win.

Johnson was also special because of how he used players. Brian Dawkins was a solid young player when Johnson took over the Eagles' defense in 1999. Johnson turned him from a free safety and nickel corner into a defensive weapon. Johnson saw a player with unique ability. Why limit what Dawkins could do? He moved Dawkins all over the field and let him do everything. This brought out the best in Dawkins and should help get him into the Hall of Fame. Dawkins finished his career with 37 interceptions and 26 sacks. Johnson could have had Dawkins focus on being a box safety or a centerfielder, but instead moved him around so offenses couldn't gameplan around him as easily. They never knew where Dawkins would be.

Kearse was used creatively at times. Johnson would have him line up as the Joker, a linebacker in the Okie package, a 3-3-5 nickel defense. In Week 2 of the 2004 season, Kearse played that spot a lot against the Vikings and had a great game. The stat sheet won't show you a sack or any impact plays, but Kearse was a force to be reckoned with. He had five hurries and helped pressure Daunte Culpepper all game long. Kearse dropped into coverage and bothered Culpepper even when he wasn't rushing. The Monday Night Football crew chose Kearse as the co-player of the game.

Brown was a good cornerback for Johnson. When some teams used a jumbo package (three tight ends and one back, or two tight ends and two backs), Johnson would shift Brown to the free safety spot and have a safety drop down and play linebacker. This allowed the Eagles to keep base personnel on the field. Teams were unable to throw the ball against an extra linebacker. Trotter played middle linebacker unlike anyone I've seen before or since. He was a 260-pound sledgehammer and Johnson let him attack the offensive line on a regular basis. Trotter was so powerful that he could knock blockers backward and blow up run plays.

Johnson was a terrific coach and defensive mind. He was a perfect fit for the City of Philadelphia and helped the Eagles have an amazing run with five conference title game appearances between 2001-08. His former players and coaches are spread around the league today. Johnson might be gone, but his legacy will be part of the NFL for a long, long time.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com.

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