Since I never had the opportunity to meet Jim Johnson, it wouldn't make sense of me to talk about him as a person. I'm going to focus on him in the way I did know him – as the coach of our defense for the last decade.
Let's start by talking about some of what Johnson liked to do on defense. There is a perception that Johnson was a "mad scientist" who blitzed all game long. That is actually a bit exaggerated. Johnson's defense is better described as calculated aggression. His primary focus was on limiting points by the opponent.
That may sound like an odd statement, but different coaches have different priorities. Points allowed was only Buddy Ryan's No. 3 concern. His focus was on turnovers and sacks. He was willing to give up big plays and scores as long as his defense pounded the quarterback and came up with takeaways. Johnson preferred a safer approach. As much as anything, he played the percentages.
When an opposing offense was on its own side of the field, Johnson was more conservative. He ran zone blitzes and took some chances, but limited the amount of plays where his secondary would be dangerously exposed. Once a team crossed midfield, things changed. Johnson and the defense got more aggressive.
Johnson feared giving up big plays. His theory was to make offenses move the ball on a long, methodical drive. He figured that at some point the quarterback would make a bad throw, a receiver would drop a pass, or there might be a penalty on the offense. Not only was there pressure on the offense to be efficient and limit mistakes, but they also had to contend with Johnson's defense.
If an offense did put together a good drive and got inside the Eagles' 40-yard line they were going to face an aggressive, attacking defense. Think about it. When a team has gotten to that point you no longer have to fear giving up a big play. The offense is already on the verge of scoring territory. Johnson also knew that as the field shrank there would be less ground for his defensive backs to cover, making their jobs easier. Johnson also had one final reason for being more aggressive in this situation. He hoped to knock the offense out of field goal range if possible. A sack or timely holding call on the offense could be the difference between a punt and a field goal attempt. At the least, Johnson wanted to push the kicker back as far as he could.
Johnson had a specific goal of allowing 17 points or less each game. He felt that if the defense did that the team had a chance to win every week. There was a stretch from late in the 2000 season through the NFC Championship Game of 2001 where the Eagles didn't allow an opponent to score more than 21 points. I'm sure that 21-game streak would be one of Johnson's proudest accomplishments. If you take away touchdowns scored by opposing defenses and special teams units, Johnson's defenses allowed about 17 points a game during his time in Philly. His defenses also rank near the top in sacks, takeaways and other major categories in the last decade. That kind of sustained success shows you that Johnson had a good system.
One of the key reasons that Andy Reid hired Johnson back in 1999 was because Reid was so impressed by his fire-zone scheme. This is coachspeak for zone blitzing. In order to understand zone blitzing, let's talk about the evolution of blitzing in general.
The original goal of blitzing was to out-number the offensive blockers and get a defender a free lane to the quarterback. Offenses countered this idea by having "hot reads." These were short pass patterns so that the quarterback would be able to get his throw off quickly. The offense hoped the receiver would make the catch and then could beat his lone defender for a good gain.
At some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, the zone blitz came into being. The goal was no longer to out-number the offense's blockers. Defenses now wanted to out-smart the offense. The offenses had adjusted by using hot reads. Now, the defenses had to come up with a change in their attack.
The zone blitz featured four or five rushers. A normal blitz used five, six, or sometimes seven rushers to go after the passer. The defense then played man coverage. The goal now was to confuse the offense as to who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage. The zone blitz would send a defensive back or linebacker to attack the quarterback. At the same time, a defensive lineman would drop into coverage. The lineman would usually drop into an area where the offense was expected to have a receiver running a hot read.
As the quarterback was dropping back, he would see the linebacker or defensive back blitzing. Chances were good that he would not notice the lineman dropping into coverage. The quarterback would then throw the ball to a receiver who was in the vicinity of a defender. Sometimes the lineman was able to deflect the pass. Every now and then a lineman would actually come up with an interception. At the least, he should be able to tackle the receiver quickly after the catch and limit the success of the play.
Jim Johnson did not invent the zone blitz, but he was one of the coaches who perfected it. He knew when to call it in a game. His players executed it very well. He taught his linebackers and defensive backs how to be good blitzers. He taught his defensive linemen how to be effective when they did drop back into coverage.
Johnson used his personnel according to their strengths. When Jeremiah Trotter was the middle linebacker Johnson used him very creatively. He knew Trotter wasn't meant to stay off the ball and play in space most of the time. Johnson had Trotter attack up the middle a lot. He would literally run at the center. Trotter was 260 pounds and had a very powerful lower body. This allowed him to knock the center backward most of the time, which kept the center from pulling on run plays or helping a guard double-team a lineman. When Mark Simoneau took over as middle linebacker Johnson had him play off the ball more often. Simoneau wasn't nearly as big or powerful as Trotter. Stewart Bradley, a big player, manned the middle last year and Johnson once again attacked a lot.
Brian Dawkins is the best example of Johnson maximizing a player's ability. Dawkins played three years under Emmitt Thomas and Ray Rhodes. They used him a lot in man coverage. Dawkins was adept at this, but it limited his chances to be a playmaker. In those three years he had eight interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles. Johnson came along in 1999 and saw that Dawkins needed to be used more freely and aggressively. In that year alone, Dawkins had four interceptions, six forced fumbles and 1.5 sacks. He went from being a good cover guy to a major playmaker. Now Dawkins has a legitimate shot at the Hall of Fame. He is one of the few players in NFL history with more than 20 sacks and 30 interceptions. He also has an amazing 33 forced fumbles. Johnson knew that Dawkins was simply too talented to limit to a standard role. You have to take a player with that kind of ability and find multiple ways to use him.
Johnson liked to get creative with his front seven players as well. One of the key reasons that the Eagles signed Darren Howard as a free agent is that Johnson valued his ability to rush the passer from the defensive tackle spot in the nickel and dime packages. Last year Howard led the team with 10 sacks, most of which came when he was playing defensive tackle.
Johnson also had something called the Okie Package. This was a 3-3-5 alignment that he used on known passing situations. What made this special was that the middle linebacker was actually a defensive end. Johnson called this position ""The Joker."" We saw N.D. Kalu, Jevon Kearse, Juqua Parker and Chris Clemons all have success in this position. The Joker would normally line up right behind the nose tackle. He could then rush left or right, he could loop out wide around the defensive end, or he could drop into coverage. Johnson could also devise all kinds of elaborate blitzes from the Okie Package. The blockers saw three defensive linemen, but any of the 11 defenders could be coming on the blitz.
Johnson was a master at coming up with original blitz ideas. He is the first coach I ever saw blitz both cornerbacks on the same play. It could have happened somewhere else, but I remember Johnson doing it in the 2001 season opener against the Rams and being shocked. How in the world could you blitz both cornerbacks? During Johnson's tenure there were plenty of sacks and quarterback hits by blitzers. Seven different ""non-linemen"" had three or more sacks in a season. That shows you a lot of the success was due to the system and design of the blitzes.
I think you also have to see the success of the coaches who spent time under Johnson. Ron Rivera has run some very good defenses with a couple of teams. Leslie Frazier has put together a top-flight defense in Minnesota. Steve Spagnuolo helped the Giants to win a Super Bowl and is now head coach of the Rams. John Harbaugh took the Ravens to the AFC title game in his first year as head coach. These men all learned from Johnson. That speaks volumes about his ability to teach football and leadership skills. X's and O's don't mean anything if you can't communicate with your assistant coaches and players.
I'm glad that Johnson's final season was one where the defense had a great year. They finished in the top five in just about every major category. Now I'm excited to see if that group can get even better. Johnson won't be on the sideline, but you can bet he'll be watching from somewhere.
Jim Johnson was an integral part of a great time in Philadelphia. The Eagles didn't break through and win the Super Bowl while he was here, but the team did just about everything else. As an Eagles fan and just a football fan I'm glad I was here to watch his defenses for the last decade. Thanks for the memories coach.