Tom Johnson has picked up where he left off during his breakout 2014 campaign.
A year ago, Johnson was a journeyman defensive tackle who joined the Vikings on a veteran-minimum contract. He ended up thriving in coach Mike Zimmer’s attacking scheme, recording 6.5 sacks, second on the team and the most among Vikings defensive tackles.
In two preseason games this summer, Johnson, who was rewarded with a three-year, $7 million deal this offseason, has recorded one sack while hitting a quarterback two other times and recording seven total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Tom is doing well,” Zimmer said. “He’s got some slither inside in the pass rush. He’s working real hard at being a better run defender, and I think he’s really come to like how we do things, as far as defensively and how we can help use his ability.”
Johnson will resume his reserve role from a year ago, in which he replaces nose tackle Linval Joseph to provide some pass-rushing punch in the team’s nickel package. That role helped him get on the field for 40.7 percent of the defensive snaps.
And now Johnson, feeling much more comfortable in his second year in Zimmer’s defense, believes he can top his sack total from a season ago.
“Definitely. That’s the goal for the year,” he said. “You can’t be stagnant. I’m shooting for a high number this year. And with the team behind me — they’re comfortable with me and confident in me — I’ll have more opportunities to make plays.”
Barr likely will play in game vs. Raiders
Outside linebacker Anthony Barr, working his way back from a knee injury, has been back at practice for a week now. But the Vikings held him out of Saturday night’s win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a precaution even though he was a full participant in pregame drills.
Assuming Barr experiences no setbacks in the next two days of practice, Zimmer said he will get the green light to play Saturday against the Oakland Raiders.
“He’s feeling good right now. We should get him some reps this week. Will you tweet that one?” Zimmer said, taking playful jab at a reporter. “We’ll get him some plays this week.”
Riddle in the middle
Zimmer has yet to choose a starter at the middle linebacker spot between Barr and Chad Greenway, and he doesn’t expect to announce a decision any time soon.
“Not yet,” he said. “We still have got a lot of time to go before we have to decide.”
Audie Cole continues to hold down the starting job in the base defense. But rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks has impressed with his frenetic play in the preseason, and he figures to have some kind of role when opponents are in passing situations.
“He’s active and productive. I like a lot of the things about him. I like his enthusiasm, his effort. He’s got great speed,” Zimmer said. “We’ll find some jobs for him to do.”
Keeping ’em sharp
Zimmer concluded practice by having the defense and specialists line up across the width of the field with the offensive players 15 yards behind their backs. When Zimmer blew the whistle, players were to sprint 5 yards. The goal was to get 20 yards down the field, 5 yards at a time, but jumping offsides set them back 5. And Zimmer had some tricks.
The coach got the defensive players to jump early several times — the culprits included Greenway once and fellow veteran Brian Robison another time — by barking out “hut-hut” instead of blowing the whistle. The offense, meanwhile, aced the drill once the defense was done.
“We always have fun in everything we do,” Robison, the defensive end, said after making some excuses for the defense losing the game. “That’s what I love about this team.”