Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson gave Bucs fans a glimpse of what could be last week when he recovered a fumble that was the result of a Gerald McCoy sack in the Dolphins game. The play set up a touchdown from Josh McCown to Vincent Jackson and was reminiscent of the swarming, wrecking crew-style defense that was constantly forcing turnovers and made Tampa Bay of the NFL’s top defensive teams in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Johnson signed with the club this offseason to do just that, and his job as the right defensive end — a job occupied by all-time great pass rushers like Simeon Rice and Julius Peppers — means he’s got high hopes he has to live up to, especially from a fan base that still has not seen a double-digit sack performance in nearly a decade. Johnson did that once in his career, finishing with 11 1/2 takedowns in 2012 with the Cincinnati Bengals. Bucs fans are hoping he can do the same here.
Head coach Lovie Smith said he’s still not there yet with the new defense but he believes it’s coming.
“I’ve seen good play from Michael. But the dominating play that I feel like we’re going to get? No we haven’t seen that. But we haven’t seen that from any guys on our football team,” said coach Smith, noting that McCoy is probably the only one really standing out on the unit right now.
“I would say, around the league, a lot of the players that will end up playing great ball during the season haven’t played this great ball during the preseason. So I don’t look into too much from the preseason on how guys play. One thing, of course, is stay healthy and get the defense down and we’ll turn them loose from there. Very pleased. No disappointment in Michael Johnson.”
Like his other teammates, Johnson is still trying to find his comfort level in a new defense, one that has his defensive line coaches Joe Cullen and Mike Phair adjusting where he lines up at the line of scrimmage.
“They want me to be wider,” said Johnson. “I have to constantly remind myself of that because I even find myself creeping down, getting down, creeping tighter in the game. It’s just an old habit that I’m just going to have to continue to work on in practice and carry over into games. The way we play here, they want us wider, getting upfield, getting vertical, we’re not squeezing stuff. It allows you to be a better rusher like that because it allows you to be wide and takes things away that the offense can’t do to you. So it’s just something that you’ve got to just train and just remind yourself to do.”
The hope, of course, is that he can have a better, quicker path to the quarterback.
“You’re not farther off the ball — you’re wider from your alignment from the offensive tackle so he can’t just jump you at the line of scrimmage. The inside guy, [I’m] farther away from him. It will give us more space. That’s what it is. It is trying to create space and create better angles to rush.”
While Johnson has to conscientiously work to line up correctly, his teammates are still adjusting to their own roles and trying to gel. It’s a process and doesn’t happen overnight, but Johnson likes the team’s progress so far.
“In the long run, the more time we get together, the better and better we’re gonna get, so I’m excited about all the things we can do. We have a great group of guys who work hard and just enjoy playing the game. That’s what it’s all about just — just going out and having fun together. When you get to doing that, that’s when big things start happening more and more.”