Seemingly every year, the Seattle Seahawks bring in a veteran defensive tackle and receive solid production from what was an unheralded signing. Ahtyba Rubin started 32 games in two seasons after arriving with little fanfare; Kevin Williams was signed in the middle of June, then started in Super Bowl XLIX the following February.
After losing Sheldon Richardson to the Minnesota Vikings in free agency, Seattle signed not one, but two of the Vikings’ DTs. Shamar Stephen and veteran Tom Johnson were brought in to fill similarly unheralded, but important roles.
Speaking at the NFL owners meetings, Pete Carroll described Stephen’s role like the one Rubin, Williams and Tony McDaniel have played in the past: “Shamar is going to be that guy that we’ve had over the years that’s really been a factor to solidify the running game.”
So while Stephen may be the one to step in and start, Johnson will come back into a role he played at the start of time with the Vikings — and impactful rotational player.
Johnson arrived in Minnesota in 2014 as more of a pass rushing 3-technique than anything else and lived up to that billing, collecting 12 sacks in his first two seasons as a rotational defensive lineman. But over his four seasons with the Vikings, his role grew and his game filled out, with Johnson starting 15 games during his final season as he became a more impactful run defender than pass rusher.
Johnson’s combination of strength and short-area quickness allows him to be a versatile and disruptive run defender. Both traits are on display here, as Johnson flows laterally really well, before disengaging quickly and making the tackle on Alvin Kamara.
Johnson’s ability to move laterally and defend outside runs was likely particularly appealing to Seattle, who just saw Todd Gurley — the league’s best outside runner — gash them for 152 yards in a humiliating defeat last December, and will play him twice a year as long as he’s with the L.A. Rams.
As much as he excels moving horizontally against outside runs, Johnson’s first-step quickness is equally as effective and important in allowing Johnson to be disruptive. He has the initial step to knife through gaps, and the strength to simply power into the backfield after he gets the guard’s inside shoulder.
So often, Johnson wins with his first step, enabling him to disrupt the running back’s path, get a hand on them in the hole, or make the play himself.
In charting Johnson’s sacks during his time with Minnesota, I found the large majority that weren’t cleaning up a broken play, or outside pressure funneling the quarterback towards him, were from aligning tighter than usual, as the 2i-technique.
Forcing the center to account for him allows Johnson to use his quickness and come all the way around, from the center’s right shoulder to the LG-LT gap.
A big part of Johnson’s success moving laterally is his balance, and the leverage he plays with. Keeping his feet under him as he’s turned sideways, before making the tackle (after taking a bad angle initially), makes for an impressive play.
As a backside defender, balance and burst are on full display as Johnson avoids the right tackle’s cut block attempt and makes an impressive tackle in pursuit.
Although Johnson lined up predominately as the 3-tech for the Vikings, he possesses the strength and discipline to align as tight as head-over center. He doesn’t allow the Bengals to create any push up front, disrupting the play from the point of attack inside.
When runs are called to his side, Johnson regularly puts his first-step quickness and strength together to affect the ball carrier around the line of scrimmage. Once he’s able to get a step past the offensive lineman, his balance and strength come into play as he storms his way into the backfield.
Playing as a defensive lineman in Carroll’s defense, physical traits simply won’t matter if you don’t play disciplined and maintain gap integrity. Freelancing up front is the quickest way to be shown the door. Johnson’s discipline up front is a big reason why I believe he’ll play a lot of snaps with the Seahawks.
Playing as a two-gap DT, Johnson engages the RT at the point of attack, moves towards the tackle’s inside shoulder as Le’Veon Bell takes a step up field, before moving back towards the outside and making the tackle as Bell tries to dart through the hole. The strength displayed in Johnson’s initial correction is impressive.
Again, in a battle of patience against Bell, Johnson comes out victorious. He stays engaged with the right guard David DeCastro as the run develops and forces Bell to make a choice. Bell takes a hop-step to the right, Johnson shades over with him, so Bell moves back to the left as Johnson does, until eventually Bell runs out of time and room, and the cavalry arrives.
The impact Johnson will have as a pass rusher will be limited, especially in the role he’ll be playing at this stage of his career. However, his combination of power and quickness can still create pressure in one-on-one situations. Regardless of Johnson’s lack of pass rushing prowess, if he’s able to get underneath a guard and bull rush, he’ll find himself in the backfield.
Seattle has lacked 5-6 sacks from an interior rusher during the past three seasons and their entire pass rush has suffered as a result. Now, without Michael Bennett reducing inside to create pressure, the Seahawks need a DT to step up more than in previous seasons.
Johnson may not create pressure as consistently as when he first arrived in Minnesota, but if he plays 70-75% of the defense’s snaps, he could still get to that sack number Seattle’s needed from an inside rusher in recent years. As the Seahawks look to rebuild their defensive line, that type of contribution from a run-first defender would be massive.
Although Johnson was more of a backup plan after Richardson left in free agency, he should still play a large role on Seattle’s defense in 2018. A stout, disciplined run defender with the quickness to get into the backfield and run tackle-end stunts, Johnson can do everything asked of a DT in Carroll’s defense. He wasn’t a flashy signing, but like the veteran DTs signed by the Seahawks before him, Johnson will slide right in and make an impact on defense.