Tom Johnson has had a long path to get to where he is today. He started out as a rookie free agent out of Southern Mississippi in 2006 with the Indianapolis Colts. After that didn’t work out, he played in NFL Europa, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football league from 2007-10.
He then earned a roster spot with the New Orleans Saints and registered his first sack against the Minnesota Vikings in 2011, and saw action in all four of their playoff games from 2011-13.
Johnson then traveled to Minnesota and met up with the new regime of coaches in the 2014 offseason and knew that he would be able to get playing time there.
“Yeah, when I first got here,” said Johnson when asked if Mike Zimmer told him he would get as much playing time as he does. “Zimmer, being from Cincinnati, is a big rotational guy on the D-line, or whatever, and he told me you’re going to get the opportunity to play if I come put in the work – I’ll earn a spot and find my role and play.”
Zimmer has lived up to his word as Johnson is having a career year playing with the Vikings. He is playing in more than 36 percent of the defensive snaps and has recorded a career-high four sacks, which is tied for first among defensive tackles in the NFC.
A lot of the credit goes to Johnson’s teammates. He has bought into Zimmer’s style of team rushing and so far it has worked well for him.
“If we all do our jobs together the quarterback has nowhere to go,” said the defensive tackle. “So you have to choose to get sacked by me, or the ends, or the other nose.”
Johnson has also done a lot of things on his own as a way to try to improve his play. In the offseason he changed trainers, started eating better and leaned out some. He also started to focus more on his lower body because he wanted to get quicker.
Then came the help from defensive line coach Andre Patterson to fix the little things that will make him a better player.
“I think the coaching from Coach Patterson has helped,” Johnson said. “The way he teaches us to stay on track and use our hands, different small things, you know? I’m a good athlete, but with the small adjustments I could elevate my game even more.”
Zimmer also believes that Johnson is a good athlete and gives a lot of the success to the teachings of the coaching staff as well.
“Tom is a quick-twitch athlete,” Zimmer said. “Plays with good pad level, he plays with proper leverage, has good strength, and I think our coaches do a great job teaching these guys what we’re trying to learn, and what allows them to be successful.”
Zimmer went on to say he thought Johnson was a lot like a player he had in Cincinnati. The player was Wallace Gilberry, who Zimmer said was someone that just did not seem to fit in some other schemes but who had success in the Zimmer style of defense.
“Wallace was a very hard-playing guy who bought into the system,” Zimmer said. “Last year, I think he had six or seven sacks, or something like that. He was one of those guys that wasn’t fitting in the right system for whatever reason, and Tom kind of reminds me of him a little bit.”
Although the early success has been great, Johnson is not happy with it yet. He knows that there is still a lot more work for him to do, and that there is still a lot of season left to play.
“By Week 10 nobody will remember what you did in Week 6,” Johnson said. “I’m just looking to mess up another team up deep in the backfield, and hopefully we can get more (sacks) as the weeks go by.”
Johnson finding his niche, sacks with Vikings
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