Earlier this week, we took a look at cornerback E.J. Gaines and remarked that the Buffalo Bills “noped” their way through the entire 2016 secondary. When you task yourself with a complete makeover on five of the 11 positions on defense, you’re probably gonna need to sign some guys. Nickel corner Leonard Johnson happened to be one of those guys.
Johnson entered the league with the Buccaneers in 2012 where he stuck for three years. If the name was familiar to Bills fans, it’s likely due to Johnson then spending a year with the, ahem...somewhat unpopular around here...New England Patriots. This might shock you, but his next stop for the 2016 season was the Carolina Panthers. In Carolina he probably ran into current Bills Head Coach Sean McDermott once or twice. Let’s take a look to see if McDermott’s confidence in Johnson was warranted.
In six seasons in the NFL, Leonard Johnson has one sack. This play gives us some insight into why that is. Yes I’m aware this is a running play, however Johnson was coming in no matter what. Johnson times the snap pretty well actually, but isn’t fast enough to be a factor in this play. Johnson is faster than Hughes, but not by much which is noteworthy as he has a head start accelerating.
This play was selected to highlight how Johnson and the nickel defense works under McDermott and Leslie Frazier. We note here and elsewhere that nickel is a primary defensive set for Buffalo, but to clarify there’s numerous alignments and looks. This play is different from the last, and if you look carefully at the next three it’s all nickel but a lot of variation. One thing to really keep an eye on is the overall trust the secondary has with each other as they pass receivers off between zones.
On Johnson’s part here he does a good job picking up his man. At first glance it looks like he’s beat on the route outside, but Johnson stops pursuit because he’s seeing the play develop. There’s a lot happening quickly, but Johnson pauses to set up for the tackle on the intended receiver. As the pass deflects off he’s already following it to the ground.
Johnson reads Alex Smith here pretty well and starts driving for the tackle pretty much as it’s being released. He makes solid contact with the shoulder, but remembers to get the left arm around. He doesn’t quite wrap up, but tangles up the receiver’s legs making sure the play is over. Johnson trusts the players behind him and doesn’t fall too far back despite a receiver slipping behind him. As a result, there’s no chance for a first down.
Johnson is worried about the sideline and drives ahead of the receiver to prevent YAC. Akeem Hunt (31) shows off that he’s a little more nimble than Johnson expected and cuts back inside. Credit Johnson for being able to spring back and make contact. Buffalo swarms to the ball as well, otherwise this is likely a missed tackle.
Let’s end on a positive! Johnson has Albert Wilson covered well. Alex Smith goes to the usually productive plan of “throw the ball to Tyreek Hill and cross your fingers” due to the large cushion Hill is given on the play. As we’ve already seen from Johnson, he reads and reacts well to make the tackle.
Like many nickel corners, Johnson’s stats aren’t eye-popping. With 51 combined tackles and one forced fumble for the Bills, it’s doubtful number lovers would label him as a “playmaker.” When filtering for similar positions though (all corners and anyone with a general label of defensive back) Johnson comes in at number 53 in total tackles. As the nickel corner is usually thought of as the third man up on a team, his numbers actually should raise an eyebrow or two.
The usage of nickel packages varies from team to team and volume stats must be reconciled with snap counts. The Buffalo Bills looooooved playing in nickel, especially later in the year. Johnson played just over 60% of the time on defense. This actually was slightly MORE than E.J. Gaines who plays a “primary” corner spot that should be expected to be as close to 100% as possible. Don’t think for a second though that Johnson subbed in for Gaines to account for his high snap counts. Shareece Wright was the corner that benefited from Gaines’ missed time. Johnson was strictly a nickel corner. His snap counts are more impressive considering he missed an entire game and significant portions of two others due to injuries. Against Kansas City, the Buffalo Bills played the entire game using a nickel defense. It’s likely that Johnson’s stats are inflated to some degree due to receiving a lot of on field opportunity, but still respectable.
Johnson seems to fit in perfectly with what the Bills are looking for. Johnson isn’t likely to turn in highlight reel plays all that frequently. On the flip side, he does play well at a position where you don’t need highlights on the regular. A solid nickel becomes even more important when discussing the Bills. All evidence suggests that nickel is their default.
It can’t be overlooked that McDermott was already familiar with Johnson from their time in Carolina. This should stand as a firm thumbs up on locker room presence and character from McDermott. His on-field intelligence and discipline in the zone defense seem to be a hot commodity in Buffalo. It’d be shocking if the Bills don’t look to retain Johnson.