Tom Johnson, and really the entire Vikings defense, has been moving too quickly for much nostalgia.
But at least Johnson has plenty of reason to look back this week as he returns to Europe for the first time since he was a Cologne Centurion. A decade ago, Johnson was a 23-year-old undrafted kid from Moss Point, Miss., assigned by the Colts to NFL Europe, where he spent the 2007 season keeping the dream alive under midlevel ex-college coaches in a foreign country.
On Thursday morning, Johnson landed in London a 33-year-old starting defensive tackle on the NFL’s fourth-ranked defense.
“I’m in the chase. I’m in the race,” he said Wednesday. “Right now, I’m just taking it one step at a time. But you get a chance to look back and see, yeah, it has been a huge jump from where I was to where I am now. I think it’s a cool situation.”
Johnson continues to be one of the more underrated success stories in a Vikings defense littered with them. Now he is in the final season of a three-year contract signed after 2014, his first season in Minnesota when he proved to be a worthy pass rusher with 6½ sacks.
Johnson said he believes he should be shedding labels like “pass rusher” as he has settled into a full-time role with the Vikings, or about as full-time as one can be in coach Mike Zimmer’s rotation. Only edge rushers Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter have played more than Johnson (66 percent of snaps) for the Vikings defensive line through seven games this season.
Last year, Johnson was sixth in playing time in a talented defensive line room. This summer, he fended off newcomers such as free-agent addition Datone Jones and rookie Jaleel Johnson to keep his starting role.
“They like what I do,” Johnson said. “And I keep that chip on my shoulder.”
That chip for Johnson formed at Southern Mississippi, from where he went undrafted, and continued in Cologne, Germany, in 2007; Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2008; Philadelphia in 2009; and Calgary, Alberta, in 2010. Those were his stops in NFL Europe, the Arena Football League and the Canadian Football League before the Saints and ultimately the Vikings came calling.
“They’ve been saying I was old since I was 29,” Johnson said. “Being in the situation I’ve been in, the way my career has gone, I’ve had to prove myself over and over and over and over again.”
Johnson’s rise in the Vikings defense is more impressive when considering their biggest defensive leap has been defending the run, mostly with Johnson in the spot vacated by injured 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd.
Only two NFL defenses, the Eagles and Broncos, are giving up fewer rushing yards per game than the Vikings (76.6 yards) nearly halfway through the season. The 6-foot-3, 288-pound Johnson is listed about 20 pounds lighter than Floyd, but he has continued to refine his play in the latter part of his career.
“Even though he’s a smaller guy inside, his block awareness and contact balance has been a lot better,” defensive coordinator George Edwards said. “I think he understands what is expected out of the three-technique [defensive tackle] within our scheme.”
Johnson said he is focused on “gambling less” as he is skillful at making the quick, long stride upfield, but he can get caught out of position, which opens running lanes. Still, Johnson’s fast feet have been more disruptive for opponents than the Vikings.
His “slipperiness,” as Zimmer refers to Johnson’s style of play, helped the Vikings bust the Packers zone running schemes, which struggled in the Vikings’ 23-10 victory Oct. 15 before quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone.
So even if somebody in attendance at Twickenham Stadium on Sunday remembers Johnson’s play from his Cologne days, they might not recognize this well-rounded defensive tackle, who has been taking advantage of Linval Joseph’s double teams and stopping both quarterbacks and running backs alike.
“I think if people watch the film,” Johnson said, “they’d agree.”