Colts DT-Antonio Johnson Working to Earn, Keep Starting Position
INDIANAPOLIS – He never figured he was guaranteed anything.
The way Antonio Johnson saw it, he had been through too much in two NFL seasons to think of being assured of a starting position. Or even a roster spot, for that matter.
So, Johnson entered the offseason with the idea he would work hard, see what happened.
He entered training camp the same way.
Now, midway through the 2009 NFL preseason, Johnson – who is preparing for his first full season with the Colts – is working as a starting defensive tackle alongside Ed Johnson. And although he indeed is listed with the first team, Antonio Johnson said this week one thing is certain.
Now is no time to stop working.
"My mind was set," Johnson said this week as the Colts (1-1 in the 2009 NFL preseason) prepared to play the Detroit Lions (1-1) at Ford Field in Detroit, Mich., Saturday at 1 p.m.
"I just competed all off-season, I just came in, kept my head on straight and did what I had to do."
What Johnson (6-feet-3, 310 pounds), a third-year veteran who played collegiately at Mississippi State, has done along with Ed Johnson (6-2, 296) is help form a starting defensive tackle tandem the size and athleticism of which fit what the Colts want at the position.
Antonio Johnson and Ed Johnson each play at or near 300 pounds. So, yes, they are big.
But in the Colts' one-gap style of defensive line play, just being at or near a certain weight – any number – isn't enough. Athleticism and quickness are key, too.
Ed Johnson has that and Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said recently Antonio Johnson does, too.
"Antonio has been pretty steady since he came back from his injury," Caldwell said of Johnson, who missed the first week of training camp with a knee injury. "Obviously, he gives us a lot of bulk in that area, but he's a guy that plays with a lot of effort. He can hit and shed. He can take care of his gap, but because of his size and girth you oftentimes may underestimate how much ground he can cover. He can cover ground and not only that, he can get some push in the middle in his pass rush.
"We like what he is doing. We need him to continue to improve, and I think he's the kind of guy that that's imant to him. So, I think you'll see that happen throughout the preseason."
Not that Johnson always knew he would be a key player on an NFL defensive line.
Johnson, originally a fifth-round selection by the Tennessee Titans in the 2007 NFL Draft, never played a regular-season game for Tennessee, being placed on injured reserve in August of his rookie season and being waived just before the 2008 season before signing to the Titans' practice squad.
"It wasn't a fact that I couldn't play the game," Johnson said. "It was just a numbers game. That's the way this business works. You have to take the hand that you're dealt and move on. I never doubted myself. When I got cut, I was disappointed, but I wasn't discouraged. I wasn't down on myself. I wasn't questioning myself, 'Could I play in this league?' None of that.
"I feel like I'm here for a purpose. The Lord put me here for a reason, to play football."
It was from the Tennessee practice squad that the Colts signed him last November, and Johnson said immediately he believed his situation in Indianapolis would be different.
"The first week I was here, I was practicing the game plan," he said. "I didn't know I was going to play right off. But I got in there and got 27 snaps. I had an eight-tackle game, so I had a good game. I just came in, competed and wanted to play football. It was a nice transition. I just came here and worked hard."
Colts middle linebacker Gary Brackett said it was obvious quickly Johnson would not only play, but that he would help the defense.
"The Pittsburgh game, you noticed the difference," Brackett said. "He has a great motor. He's a guy who can play sideline-to-sideline, at his size, which is huge. We always had trouble with double-teams, guys being big enough to sustain a double-team and get off and make a tackle. He's been able to do that consistently."
Johnson, who moved into the starting lineup in early December, started the last four regular-season games, and also started against San Diego in the postseason. He finished the season with 31 tackles and a quarterback pressure and said he likes his situation more entering this season.
The reason is not just that he is starting, and not just that he is doing so beside a player near 300 pounds, but that there are larger players behind them, too. That, he said, can only help.
"I feel a whole lot more confident this season," Johnson said. "Guys like me and Ed – big guys – we're going to get rest this year. We have (rookie defensive tackles) Fili (Moala) and Terrance (Taylor) in helping us out – and (veteran defensive tackle) Dan Muir.
"Those guys will help out on the interior, get us some rest when we need rest. Then we'll come back in and play the game."