Johnson playing safely at safety

Safety Tyrell Johnson learned a lot from veteran Darren Sharper, but the second-year safety knows he can't take the risks Sharper does because of the experience factor. Johnson and Sharper talked in-depth about each other, the schemes and the defensive philosophies.

At the end of the 2008 season, there were a lot of questions surrounding two of the Vikings' elder statesmen – center Matt Birk and safety Darren Sharper. In the 2008 draft, the Vikings made a point to draft players that were viewed as the heirs to their positions – safety Tyrell Johnson and center John Sullivan. When the season ended, neither Birk nor Sharper was given a good enough contract offer to keep him here and both were allowed to leave via free agency.

Both of them found a lot of success in new situations, Birk in Baltimore and Sharper in New Orleans. Although Johnson isn't as big a name as Sharper, he has made the transition into Sharper's position and, as the two prepare to square off as opponents for the first time, both are excited about the challenge of being a key cog in trying to get their respective teams to the Super Bowl – the Vikings for the first time in 32 years and the Saints for the first time in franchise history.

Sharper was one of the most popular players with the Vikings, but, when the 2008 season drew to an end, he said he saw the handwriting on the wall. While there were some contract discussions prior to the start of free agency, he was pretty sure that he was going to be allowed to test the free-agent waters and found himself a home in New Orleans.

"I started with Tyrell [Johnson] for half the season and he was drafted as a second-round pick," Sharper said. "You can see the business side of it, that you had a guy that you paid, Madieu Williams, who before that was coming in to be a starter with me. I was a guy who was a free agent, so of course you are going to let the rookie play, who played well when he played with me last year, so it was kind of an easy transition."

On the other side of the equation was Johnson. Forced into the starting lineup earlier than expected as a rookie when Williams suffered a neck injury in the first days of training camp, Johnson's apprenticeship in the NFL was learning on the job in the starting lineup. There to help him along the way was Sharper, even though he knew he was likely keeping the seat warm until the day the team was confident enough in Johnson to part ways with the veteran. Johnson said Sharper was more than willing to provide advice, tips and, when needed, backup help to make sure he was doing his job right. He remains appreciative of the mentoring Sharper provided.

"He was very helpful to me," Johnson said. "He's a guy who has played at a high level in this league for a long time and any time you can line up next to someone like that, you can learn from him. He was willing to teach and I was a willing pupil. I wanted to learn as much as I could from him."

While Sharper wasn't bitter about his departure from the Vikings, he did fire a shot across the bow after signing on with Gregg Williams' defense in New Orleans. He had made his career in Green Bay by making big plays. While he still accomplished that with the Vikings, the design of the Tampa-2 scheme didn't allow for a lot of freelancing. Sharper felt he was confined by the system. His Pro Bowl numbers, including leading the league in interceptions with nine, speak to his ability to still make plays that can change the complexion of a game and he believes the Saints defensive scheme has allowed him to do what he does best.

"I think the main thing when people talk about changing the culture of our defense was just becoming a playmaking defense – something I've done in the past, something I kind of brought here," Sharper said. "Our turnover numbers have increased. I think that is something I've carried with me throughout my career with whatever defense I've been a part of. Just having the ability to cause turnovers and make big plays, I think that was the main culture that I added to this defense."

While that scheme has worked for Sharper and the Saints, the Vikings defense has remained much the same even without him. The safeties are essentially interchangeable – there isn't the textbook definition of free safety and strong safety – and Johnson is fine with that. In only his second season in the NFL, he said what worked for Sharper was due to his veteran experience and savvy and he is content in playing his role in the defense – even if it means he isn't the same type of dynamic playmaker he could be in a different defensive scheme.

"Safeties like to make plays," Johnson said. "That's part of our job, but I'm more structured. Darren is an older veteran player and he liked to go outside the box a little bit and, because of his history, was allowed to do that more. For me, I have to play inside that box a lot more and play within the scheme and do things exactly that way it's drawn up. That's the way it should be and I understand that, but I could see when Darren wanted a little more flexibility to jump plays in hopes of making the big turnover that could turn a game around. In New Orleans, they gave him the green light to play the way he plays and trust his instincts. The results have been there. He's going to Pro Bowl."

Neither Johnson nor Sharper is going to have an easy task in front of him because both the Vikings and Saints have numerous weapons at their disposal. The Vikings set records by having six different players catching 43 or more passes during the season, but what the Saints accomplished was just as impressive if not more so. They had seven players catch 35 or more passes and 10 players who caught at least one touchdown.

Unlike the Cowboys in the divisional round of the playoffs, where tight end Jason Witten and wide receiver Miles Austin were far and away Tony Romo's favorite targets, Johnson and the Vikings secondary will have many more threats to deal with in the New Orleans passing game.

"An offense like theirs does change what you do a little bit," Johnson said. "It makes you stay more true to your responsibilities. With Dallas, you had some ‘tells.' You knew you had to shut down Witten and Austin because they were their primary receivers all year long. With them, if you shut down (Reggie) Bush, they're going to go to (Marques) Colston. If you shut down Colston, they're going to go to Devery (Henderson). Then you throw in (Robert) Meacham and (Jeremy) Shockey. They have so many dimensions that it makes it tough. But we have to continue to be aggressive and put the pressure on Brees."

Despite the multiple threats the Saints will throw at Johnson and the Vikings defense, he said they won't change what they do to tailor the Saints. It's been a mantra they have maintained all season – they don't change what they do depending on the opponent. They continue to do what they have done every week and dare the opposition to come up with a game plan to beat them.

"We're all about executing our responsibility," Johnson said. "Nobody can make us get outside the box and play outside our game. We're going to come in and do the same things we've been doing all year. As long as we go out and execute, we'll be fine."

In what is clearly the biggest game in the lives of just about every player on both teams, emotions are going to be running high. Adrenaline will be pumping. Hearts will be beating faster. Big plays – both good and bad – will be magnified. Yet Johnson said he's going to try to keep him emotions in check because, in the final analysis, even though the stakes are as high as they can be, if the Vikings are going to win, they're going to have to continue to play like it's just another game along the way and not let the magnitude of it all overshadow the basic premise that it is still a 60-minute game that requires the focus and discipline that has got the Vikings to this juncture of their 2009 season.

"It's not going to be easy to do, but you have to look at this as just another game," Johnson said. "If you make the game more than what it is, you're going to play uptight and play tense. That's the last thing you want to do in a game like this. It's not like I'm a 15-year veteran or anything like that, but it just makes common sense to me. We're all going to be excited when the game starts, but we aren't going to make it more than what it is. It's still just a football game and we all have our job to do."

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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