Defensive Tackle Johnson Hopes to Improve on Rookie Season
INDIANAPOLIS - The past isn't something Ed Johnson spent much time considering this off-season.
Yes, Johnson was successful last season.
And yes, he surprised some around the NFL by starting 16 games as a rookie free agent.
Johnson, a second-year defensive tackle for the Colts, not only started those games, he emerged as one of the core players on the defensive line, one of a trio of young defensive tackles capable of making a huge impact in the coming seasons.
But now, Johnson said he's thinking of something else.
Not the past, not what he did, but the future.
The immediate future.
"I can come in much better shape than I did last year," Johnson said just before the start of the Colts' organized team activities - 14 days of on-field work that will continue through mid-June at the team's training facility.
"I can be quicker and faster and do things that personally I know I can do better and have done better in the past that I know I can improve on. I think at the end, by doing that, I would be a much better player, and that would make our defense even better."
That's a huge difference from Johnson's situation a year ago.
Johnson, who played collegiately at Penn State University, went unselected in the 2007 NFL Draft. Several weeks after the draft, on the advice of Penn State Head Coach Joe Paterno, Colts President Bill Polian signed Johnson as a free agent.
"Coach Paterno said, 'I think he's ready,''' Polian recalled last fall. "'I think he's ready to make a contribution. I think I've gotten him to the point through tough love' – as only Coach Paterno can give – 'where he's mature enough to come in and make a contribution.'
"As usual, Joe was right."
Johnson, after entering training camp as a backup, moved into a starting role when veteran Anthony "Booger" McFarland sustained a season-ending knee injury.
He never left it, becoming the only Colts defensive lineman to start all 16 games last season and finishing eighth on the team with 63 tackles, 49 solos. He had a sack and eight quarterback pressures and also had a forced fumble and had a fumble recovery.
"He did a lot of great things," Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy said of Johnson.
Said Johnson, "The biggest thing I was trying to do last year was listen and pay attention to details so I wouldn't be a hindrance on the team."
He made his first NFL appearance in the preseason against Dallas, a team that featured one of the NFL's biggest interior lines, a group that included guard Leonard Davis (6-feet-6, 354 pounds) and center Andre Gurode (6-4, 316).
"I felt like if I could handle them, I could play in this league," Johnson said.
But it wasn't all easy after that. Johnson said he struggles at times early, including during the first half of an October game against Denver, during which the Broncos rushed for 160 yards. In the second half, the Colts – after leading 14-13 at halftime – limited Denver to 63 yards rushing and won, 38-20.
"They were doing some things to me that I was expecting, but I thought I would be able to handle it in the first half fairly well," Johnson said. "In the second half, I was able to make those adjustments and make the plays I wasn't making in the first half.
"At that point, I think I realized I was going to be able to help this team out a lot."
Johnson, Dungy said, did so with a mix of size and speed (6-2, 296), and Johnson's ability to run enabled him to make plays at times well outside the interior of the line.
"It's something that was instilled in me in college, by my college coach, (Penn State defensive line) Coach (Larry) Johnson," Johnson said. "You couldn't even get on the field if you couldn't run. It's just something that's rolled over. They have the same philosophy here.
"A lot of people are impressed with a person my size who can run, but for me, it's just a common thing. I've been doing it for so long it's not anything big to me at all. A lot of people look at me and say they didn't think I was that fast.
"I take it as a compliment. I'm just trying to get faster and keep working hard."
Johnson said he spent much of his rookie season "just trying to listen, to hear what JT (defensive line coach John Teerlinck) was telling me and to hear what the guys who were playing were telling me – guys who had been there before."
That group included McFarland, who spent time in Indianapolis rehabilitating.
During that time, Johnson said McFarland – a 1999 first-round draft selection acquired by the Colts in a mid-season trade the previous season – helped him significantly.
"I talked to Booger a lot last year," Johnson said. "During the week, I would watch film with him. He would call me and if I had questions, I would call him. He helped me out a lot. He showed me a lot of little things – secret, veteran stuff – learning how to watch film, things to look for, things like that. They were things that made the whole process of being a rookie, playing fast, easier.
"It had a great impact on me. You don't ever look at it as someone trying to take your place. We're all teammates and you have the same goal in mind, just like when I was in school and a young guy would come in. I wouldn't not try to help him because I thought he was trying to take my place.
"You do everything for the good of the team. In the end, I think that's what it comes down to. It was all about the team. He helped me out a lot and I appreciate it."
Now, he is looking ahead without McFarland, and doing so as one of the key components on one of the NFL's top young defenses. The Colts last season ranked third in the NFL in total defense, their highest total since moving to Indianapolis, and improved drastically against the run. Johnson's performance as a rookie, Dungy said, was a reason.
Now, Johnson said he's thinking of something else. Not the past, not what he did, but the future. The immediate future.
"I need to be at a certain weight," Johnson said. "I need to make more plays in the backfield. I need to get to the quarterback more often or flush him out of the pocket. I need to make more of an impact, I think, on third down. A lot of times last year – I don't think it was because the coach didn't trust, me, but I think it was because he thought I was young and couldn't handle everything at once – I would come off the field at times.
"I think I have to prove to him I'm ready to be a fulltime player and not just run downs and certain situations. Once I show that I can do everything and get in the backfield all of the time, make tackles for losses, get sacks and run to the ball, every play – play in and play out – I think that's when I'll know.
"I feel very prepared. I want to try to take my game to another level."
THE DEFENSIVE TACKLES
Second NFL season
Acquired: Free agent, 2007
Johnson signed as a free agent shortly after the 2007 NFL Draft, then started 16 games at right defensive tackle and was a key contributor to the defensive line. . . . He led the Colts' defensive line with 63 tackles, including 49 solos, and had a sack and a forced fumble. . . . A three-year player at Penn State, he started 18 of 34 career games, including 12 as a senior, when he had 33 tackles, 18 solos, with 8.5 tackles for losses, five sacks, one forced fumble and five passes defensed.
Seventh NFL season