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Eagle Eye: Jim Johnson was an innovator who changed the NFL

Growing up in Philadelphia during the time that I did, defensive football was life. I was just a little kid when Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Seth Joyner, Eric Allen, and the rest of that legendary Gang Green unit prowled the turf of Veterans Stadium. In 1999, however, the Eagles hired Andy Reid to be their head coach. It wasn't long afterward when he named Jim Johnson as his defensive coordinator.

Johnson served as the linebackers coach for the Seattle Seahawks for one year in 1998, but before that was the defensive coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts for two seasons. It was in Indianapolis where he helped formulate his defensive philosophy.

"It was around 1994 or 1995 when I was with the Colts, and we were playing against San Francisco with Steve Young running the West Coast offense, releasing receivers all the time, guys getting by you. The idea was don't let these people dictate to you. You have to put more pressure (on the quarterback), and every year we tried to figure out how to do that," Johnson said.

I can absolutely see the origins of how his mentality as a coach came to be reading that quote.

In my role with the Eagles, I typically spend a few weeks every summer going back and watching old Eagles film from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s for a series called Old School All-22. It's a LOT of fun for me just to go back and breeze through old tapes and study great games, players, and coaches.

Watching Johnson's group, in particular, is always a thrill, as it takes me back to my teenage years. Every time I put on one of those games, I'm constantly rewinding the tape, watching what he was trying to do on a weekly basis. There was something great to pull from in every game.

As we sit here now, 10 years after Johnson's passing, there's one game in particular that comes to mind when I think of his effectiveness as a coordinator. It was a 15-6 victory over Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 21, 2008. Why does that game stand out? Because Johnson dictated the action from start to finish, which was his goal every time he gameplanned against an opponent based off that quote above.

To honor Jim on this momentous occasion, I thought I'd go back and look at that Steelers game, pull a few plays, and get some of my friends in the media business who studied, gameplanned against, or played for Johnson to help fill in the blanks. The goal? To put his greatness on display as one of the legendary coaches in the history of the NFL.

The Steelers got the ball on their first possession. The opening drive provided a taste of what's to come.


The Steelers had three third downs on the drive, and Johnson brought all-out blitzes on two of them, trusting his defensive backs in Cover 0 coverage on the back end to hold up as the free rusher got home to Roethlisberger. Remember, the offense cannot possibly protect every defender in Cover 0. The quarterback has to beat the free rusher. On these two plays, Roethlisberger was not successful.

Safety pressure, in particular, was a hallmark of Johnson's scheme, as Greg Cosell explained to me recently. Cosell, who has been studying the game for 40 years at NFL Films, said, "safety pressure wasn't a brand-new thing, but you didn't see the amount of diverse pressures that Johnson had in his playbook. For most defenses, they were not a part of blitz package. If they were, it was certainly more of an exception than the rule."

This game wasn't just about Cover 0 blitzes. Johnson did everything he could to throw the kitchen sink at Roethlisberger, who was sacked eight times in the game (the second-worst outing of his career from that respect). Not only did the defensive coordinator send man blitzes at Big Ben, but he sent some zone pressures as well.

With man blitzes and zone blitzes galore, it was clear Johnson looked to keep the Steelers' offense on its toes, particularly on third down. Pittsburgh was 2-of-13 on the day on third down, and of those 13 snaps, Johnson blitzed 10 times. Winning that down was a point of emphasis for Johnson.

One additional thing to notice here is the violence and attitude with these plays. When I talked with Matt Bowen, a seven-year NFL veteran who is now an analyst for ESPN, he told me that play personality is what defined a Jim Johnson defense.

"When we wanted to watch the top defenses during my time, it was Philly, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore because of 'how' they played ... fast, aggressive, and physical," Bowen said.

Buffalo Bills head coach Sean McDermott was the Eagles' linebackers coach that day against the Steelers. He saw that same kind of fire from the unit.

"Jim was the kind of guy that was not going to let Ben sit back there and do his thing," McDermott said, "He had a strong dislike for opposing quarterbacks. And when you look at the environment and the personality he established on those defenses that he coached in Philadelphia ... people knew they would be in for a long afternoon when they went against him."

Where Johnson also excelled was with his deception. Not only could he find a way to win the numbers advantage against an offense, but he had a great way of showing you one thing pre-snap, and then showing the exact same thing (or at least something similar) later in the game, with a different result. Let me show you what I mean.

Three plays detailed how Johnson's schemes affected opposing offenses. On the first play, you saw an overload pressure, with a linebacker and a safety coming from the short side of the field, resulting in a sack.

Later, on another third down, the Eagles showed a similar look. The slot defender was covered up by a safety, which is a sure-fire alert to the offense that he's coming! Pittsburgh responded by keeping two extra blockers, a tight end and a running back, in to help Big Ben. Everyone dropped, though, and the Eagles only sent four, meaning they had seven in coverage against three Pittsburgh receivers. Roethlisberger threw the ball downfield and Asante Samuel came away with the interception.

"I came from a two-gap 3-4 team in New England with Bill Belichick, and this was my first year playing in a one-gap scheme where everyone up front was just attacking upfield," Samuel said. "That made our job on the back side easier, and it happened a lot in that game. One thing I got from being around Jim was, his system was his system. He didn't change a whole lot from week to week, but it was all about finding out what your weak point is (on offense).

"His dogs were his dogs, and he was going to cut them loose on you one way or another."

On the final play, the Eagles offered the threat of safety pressure with Quintin Mikell hovering about 8 yards from the line of scrimmage before the snap. That immediately caught the eyes of the running back in protection, causing him to abandon his responsibility, which is linebacker Omar Gaither, who came in clean, hit Roethlisberger, and forced an incompletion on third down.

Those three plays summarized how Johnson's pressure scheme affected offenses. First, the pressure got home. Next, the offensive staff tried to provide the quarterback with extra bodies in protection, which removed them from the passing game, giving the Eagles extra defenders in coverage. Next, players on the field were thrown off of their assignments, worried about what may come next.

Dan Orlovsky played quarterback for 13 seasons in the NFL after being a fifth-round pick in 2005. He had to gameplan for Johnson in his career and studied his defenses early on with the Lions. When I asked him about what that was like, the current ESPN analyst responded "you totally just had to guess with his defenses, because you couldn't predict what you were going to get."

Johnson kept offenses on its toes, and one of the ways he did that was by attacking them with various fronts, which was not common in that era of the NFL. By changing things up and moving people around, it puts stress on offenses and its rules in protection. Here is one example of just that.

One thing Johnson did in the win over the Steelers was take one of his defensive ends (Juqua Parker) and stand him up as a linebacker, moving him around the formation. By not lining him up as a traditional 4-3, hands-in-the-dirt defensive end, it changed things up from a pure X's and O's standpoint for the opposing offensive line.

On the first play, the Steelers protect with their five offensive linemen against a three-man rush. Defensive tackle Mike Patterson lined up over the center and slanted inside away from the "slide" part of the protection. This allowed him to slip into the backfield, almost untouched. The three-man rush beat five blockers, and Roethlisberger broke the pocket. Parker spied Roethlisberger on the play and chased him down to the flat to force an incompletion.

The Steelers had seven men in protection against a four-man rush on the second play. The Eagles alarmed the Steelers by standing up on the line of scrimmage. The Steelers had no idea how to deal with it, so their answer was to just throw more bodies at them. That created a one-on-one matchup for Darren Howard, who got home for the sack. The Eagles only sent four against a seven-man protection. There was no reason for this outcome to happen! But the exotic front created confusion for Pittsburgh, and Howard came through.

Now that I've brought exotic fronts into the equation, let me bring in my favorite part of this game, and that's the use of what is commonly referred to as "Mug" fronts in today's NFL or Double A-gap looks. Jim Johnson was one of the first coaches to utilize this in the NFL, and it's something I've written about in the past with Mike Zimmer, who coached in the NFC East during Johnson's time as the defensive coordinator in Dallas. Why are these fronts so effective today?

With the defensive line widened, the "two A gaps" (the spaces between the center and both guards) are uncovered. The Mug front puts both linebackers up into those gaps right on the line of scrimmage, with the threat to blitz. This is tough for an offense because you MUST call your protection out before the snap and you MUST account for them because they are so close to the quarterback.

Today, teams typically use the center and the running back to account for the two linebackers (though other tactics are used at times as well). But back then? No one was doing anything like this, and certainly not on this scale. To put it bluntly, the Steelers were flabbergasted.

That play was the first snap of the Mug front in this game. The Steelers tried to utilize that center-running back tactic to block it up, but Johnson remained one step ahead. His answer? Send a safety off the edge. With the running back erased from the backfield because he was so worried about the threat of a blitzing linebacker, Brian Dawkins came in scot-free for a sack.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning knows all too well about preparing for these kinds of blitzes. When you gameplanned against Johnson, you had to expect the unexpected.

"Coach Johnson is one of the great defensive minds," Manning said. "Going against the Eagles was always going to be tough, just because you feared his blitz packages ... he was kind of the first person who started the double mug with both linebackers, and getting mugged in the A gap. There were different zone blitzes off of that. He changed the game from a defensive mindset and what defenses could do, (including) different types of blitzes. It was always a tough week of preparation when going against Jim Johnson and the Eagles."

This wrinkle threw the Steelers for the loop. Sure, the Mug front? OK. They thought they could handle it. But with defensive backs flying off the edge, they had to counter with something. Their answer was to bring a tight end into the backfield to assist. That didn't go well.

Adding a tight end into the formation only added to the confusion for Pittsburgh because Johnson responded by placing another defender into the mix. This also reduced the number of receivers who could release into routes for Roethlisberger, making things easier for the secondary. Sometimes the Eagles blitzed, and sometimes they didn't. Either way, they were able to get pressure. It was a win-win for Johnson and the Eagles' defense.

These Mug fronts also worked well against the Steelers in their empty set as well. In their empty set, they looked to get the ball out quickly against the blitz to a hot route in the slot. After one successful route where they showed their hand, Johnson accounted for that slot receiver with Trent Cole dropping into coverage. The Eagles still got blitzers clean, the hot route was taken away, and the Eagles created big plays.

Sage Rosenfels was a quarterback in the NFL for 13 seasons. He knew first-hand what it was like to gameplan for Johnson, particularly as a backup for a division rival in Washington. He explained to me how Jim was always one step ahead.

"He was ahead of his time with the complexity of his blitzes because he created real struggles for the offense," Rosenfels said. "Teams make a lot of rules for all of their protection schemes in the offseason and in Training Camp so that everyone is on the same page once the regular season comes around. Jim not only knew how teams wanted to protect, but he followed that up with stretching the limits of those rules.

"He knew if teams liked to slide their protection towards a WILL (weakside) linebacker and put their running back on the MIKE (middle) or SAM (strongside)," he continued. "Knowing that, he had the ability to bring two guys to the running back's side, and the quarterback had to throw hot (meaning the ball had to come out quickly to beat the blitz)."

That scenario played out when Cole dropped back into coverage.

"He knew the quarterback had to throw hot, and so then he'd cover the hot throw and have defenders jumping routes or creating turnovers while getting hits on the quarterback," Rosenfels added.

The Eagles won the game 15-6 and they eventually advanced to the NFC Championship Game as the No. 6 seed in the NFC. It was the team's fifth visit to the conference title game eight seasons.

"Monte Kiffin is looked at by a lot of people as the best defensive coordinator of that generation," Rosenfels said, "but he ran a very different defense that was extremely simple. I would rather prepare for that scheme any day of the week over Jim Johnson."

Jim Johnson is revered by everyone in the NovaCare Complex who was here 10 years ago. Anytime I talk with former players of his, their mood instantly changes. You can tell the impact he had on people. When you look at it from a league-wide standpoint though, there's no arguing the impact he had on the game. He is a true legend in the coaching ranks. Just look at the following year, the first after his passing in September 2009.

Geoff Schwartz, a nine-year NFL veteran and current analyst with Sirius XM and ESPN Radio, entered the league in 2008, Johnson's final year as a coordinator. Schwartz was on the field as an opponent for Sean McDermott's first game taking over for Johnson as defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Johnson's influence was prevalent.

Schwartz couldn't help himself after I posted these shots on Twitter. I didn't plan on including them in the story, but they're too good not to post! McDermott took Johnson's Mug look and added a wrinkle, swapping the linebackers and defensive ends so that the rushers came right up the gut in the A gaps as opposed to the linebackers. No one had seen it before, and it worked great that day against Carolina. Now, teams like Zimmer's Minnesota Vikings utilize that tactic often.

"People started to do more and more of those Double A-gap looks after that season because they saw how predictable it made offensive protections," Cosell said. "As a defensive coach, I'd feel good about my chances if I know what protection the offense is going to call ... and that's because of Jim Johnson."

"I never worked with Coach (Dick) LeBeau," McDermott said, "but when you talk about my lifetime and the forefathers of NFL defense and the way it should be played? You're talking about Coach LeBeau and Coach Johnson. He was beyond creative. He was truly ahead of his time."

Johnson's impact on the game is evident, and I hope this piece helped show why he was a Hall of Fame coach for a franchise in a city that reveres defensive play.

Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominatedEagles Game Planshow which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts,Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging, and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices, and opponents.

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