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Alexander Johnson brings yesteryear toughness to Broncos middle linebacker position

On Pro Bowl: "If I keep playing hard, fast, smart – my goal is by the fifth, sixth game, people are going to be like, 'We've got to talk about this man now.' "
Credit: AP Photo/Justin Edmonds
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) is tackled by Denver Broncos linebacker Alexander Johnson (45) during the second half of an NFL football game, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Denver.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Ray Nitschke wrote an autobiography called, “Mean on Sunday.”

Dick Butkus called his book, “Flesh and Blood – How I Played the Game.”

Like Butkus and Nitschke, and also Ray Lewis – who used a less combative title of “I Feel Like Going On,” for his memoir – the Broncos’ Alexander Johnson is a “Mike” linebacker who extends a viciousness to his game. He doesn’t hit the ball carrier; he unloads. He doesn’t wrap and force the ballcarrier to the ground; he wraps and throws him down.

“Butkus and all those great linebackers, as a kid I used to watch different clips of them,’’ Johnson said this week in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS. “I feel like my mentality is how they carried their mentality. You’ve got to have that want to on the field to get to the ball and have that aggressiveness about your play. I love playing the game and am passionate about playing it.”

Pro Bowl voters don’t know it yet, but Johnson should start receiving strong consideration. He was terrific last year, averaging 7.8 tackles a game and recording an end zone interception against Philip Rivers, 1.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles . But because he never saw the defensive side of the field the first four games, he entered voters stream of consciousness too late.

Credit: AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann
Denver Broncos linebacker A.J. Johnson (45) chases a play during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019.

To start the 2020 season, Johnson had a game-high 12 tackles in the Broncos’ season opener Monday against Tennessee. Titans’ safety Kevin Byard had 9 tackles and Johnson’s linebacker partner Josey Jewell and Broncos’ cornerback Bryce Callahan were next with 8 tackles.

“As far as not being mentioned for the Pro Bowl, I want my play to show that each game I’m out there busting my tail for the team and making plays,’’ he said. “I think it was a good start as far as me being able to make some plays. Obviously, it was not my best game. I can play even better than I did my first game. I’m going to keep improving from that but my whole mindset and my whole motto is you want to be the best at your position. You want to be the best who’s done it. So if I keep playing hard and playing fast and playing smart, people will start realizing more and more – my goal is by the fifth game, sixth game, people are going to be like, “All right, we’ve got to talk about this man now.”

Not his best game? Where did Johnson, who seemed to be all over the field, believe he fell short?

“I like to look at things I did wrong where I can improve myself,’’ he said. “I feel like there were two plays that I left on the field where if I was reading my keys right, I could have got a pass deflection or an interception on another play critical in the 2-minute drive where I was playing too far inside. If I was playing in my gap instead of (Derrick) Henry making a 6- or 7-yard run just from me not being in my gap. So little things like that, trying to be sound on each play, in and out. Those 15, 16-play drives where you start getting winded and you start getting fatigued, you start losing your small details in the game.’’

After sitting out 3 ½ years from his last game at Tennessee to successfully defend himself in a legal trial, Johnson hardly played his first year with the Broncos in 2018 and after sitting out four more games in 2019, he joined Todd Davis as the team’s inside linebacker duo. Davis was the captain of the defense during Johnson’s first two seasons and the leading tackler on the team.

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Johnson wasn’t surprised when Davis was waived as a salary cap casualty ($5 million salary) during final cuts earlier this month. He was shocked.

“Everybody was shocked, not just I was shocked,” Johnson said. “I was expecting to line up with Todd going into this season. We trained this offseason with each other. We were preparing with each other for this season. And just letting him go like that, it was very shocking and also it was eye-opening to me. It doesn’t matter how good you play previously or how well you’ve done for the team. At the end of the day it’s a business.

“What I took from that is each game I’ve got to play my best. You never know what can happen so if you got good film you’ll be able to get picked up again. And obviously I know Todd will get picked up with a team and he’s going to do great because he’s one of the best inside linebackers in the league.”

Jewell is Johnson’s linebacker partner now. Johnson played all 81 defensive snaps against the Titans while Jewell played in all but two snaps.

“We’ve got a big responsibility controlling the D-linemen and communicating with the DBs,’’ Johnson said. “So that’s the biggest thing keep going out there and having fun and competing and playing at a high level with each other.’’

The game today at Heinz Field (11 a.m. kickoff) features a Pittsburgh Steelers’ team that blitzes a lot and a Fangio-directed defense that blitzes seldom. The Broncos blitzed 15.7 percent of the snaps last year, Fangio’s first in Denver, and 15.4 percent of the time Monday against Tennessee. When Fangio does call on a pass pressure, Johnson or safety Kareem Jackson are the defenders he often sends.

“Some people say, ‘you’ve got a knack for getting in those cracks and getting to the passer,’’’ Johnson said. “It’s just me playing and me going to the ball and being aggressive when I do blitz. I never blitzed much when I was in college because I dropping back in coverage and they had me in the middle of the field roaming and stuff.

“But I love blitzing. Who doesn’t like blitzing? You get a chance to go put pressure on the quarterback. It’s very exciting. We weren’t able to get as many blitzes as we wanted this past game because of the situation of the game but hopefully we’ll be able to stop the Steelers and get them in downs where we know they have to pass where we can bring pressure.’’

Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos linebacker A.J. Johnson reacts during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019, in Denver.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger used to take a high number of sacks – he was dropped an average of 41.6 times in the eight-season period from 2006-2013. But in his last four healthy seasons from 2015-18, Big Ben drastically reduced his annual sack average to 20.5.

“He’s put a stamp on his position and what he can do and obviously he gets his name, “Big Ben” for a reason,’’ Johnson said. “I’ve never played against him but watching him from outside-in, he’s a big guy and you see how he makes people miss all the time.

“I love challenges. If I do get a chance to hit him, I want him to feel me and let him remember me and not miss the tackle because I know he’s a strong,  big guy. So you’ve got to go in there with some controlled aggression just to get him down.’’

Those words were extremely similar to those written in the autobiographies of Nitschke and Butkus.

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