ATLANTA (AP) — Just 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, Darius Johnson could pass for one of the equipment guys in the Falcons locker room. Even so, the young receiver barely fits into one of the tiny lockers they dole out to practice squad players.
“I need one of those bigger lockers,” Johnson said, looking enviously around the room. “I’m so scrunched up in here.”
If he has another game like the last one, he’ll certainly be in line for more spacious digs.
Johnson, who was promoted from the practice squad 24 hours before the Falcons faced Tampa Bay last Sunday, had two catches in a much-needed victory over the Buccaneers.
He wasn’t the only one who stepped up, either. Harry Douglas, long the No. 3 receiver behind Julio Jones and Roddy White, had seven catches for a career-best 149 yards. Drew Davis made a brilliant one-handed grab along the sideline. And, most stunning of all, the diminutive Johnson contributed right away.
“I wouldn’t say it was expected,” Johnson said, “but I wasn’t surprised.”
There will likely be more chances for these no-name receivers to step up.
Jones is out for the year after undergoing foot surgery, while White has been plagued by injuries all season. He went down with a high ankle sprain during the preseason and now is also dealing with a hamstring problem that forced him to miss the first game of his nine-year career. He has yet to practice this week, and it seems unlikely that he’ll play when the Falcons (2-4) travel to Arizona to face the Cardinals (3-4) on Sunday.
“Those are some big shoes to feel,” Johnson said, adding that having Matt Ryan at quarterback made things easier. “He’s going put the ball where it needs to be. It’s all about timing with the quarterback and the receiver. To get those two passes that I got in the game, it was great coming from Matt Ryan, to know that he had the confidence in me to throw me the ball.”
Douglas has long been solid contributor for the Falcons, though it’s hard to get noticed much when you’re playing behind two of the NFL’s top receivers.
“It was nice to see those guys get their opportunity to contribute,” coach Mike Smith said Thursday. “We’ve known for a long time that Harry Douglas is an outstanding receiver. We just haven’t had an opportunity to always target him because of the other guys on our football team. There’s only so many passes you can throw.”
While Douglas may have played up to the Falcons’ expectations, Davis has only four career catches before facing the Bucs, while Johnson was a total unknown heading into NFL debut.
Neither was drafted after college. Davis, who played at Oregon, spent most of his rookie season on special teams a year ago, though he did haul in first career touchdowns against the Eagles. Johnson, who played his college ball at SMU, had done his best to impress the coaches in practice, but his elevation to the main roster was largely due to the team’s dire situation at receiver.
Until White gets healthy, opposing defenses are likely to gear their coverages toward tight end Tony Gonzalez. That’s just what Tampa Bay did, holding the future Hall of Famer to a pair of catches for 30 yards — the fewest receptions he’s had in a game this season.
The Cardinals are likely to mimic that strategy, which should give Douglas & Co. more opportunities.
They already have the confidence of their teammates.
“That’s exactly what you want from backup players,” Gonzalez said. “Everybody is stepping up.”
Now, about Johnson’s locker. Smith laughed when told of the rookie’s predicament.
“I’ll have to check on that,” the coach said. “If he has a couple of more catches like he had in the game last week, when you guys come in next week he may be in a different spot.”
NOTES: RB Stephen Jackson (hamstring) was still listed as limited in practice, but Smith said he essentially went through the full workout, boding well for his chances to play against the Cardinals. Atlanta’s top runner has been out since a Week 2 victory over the Rams. … OT Sam Baker (knee) was more hindered in practice, but he will return to the lineup as soon as he’s healthy enough to play, Smith said. … Also missing practice along with White were RB Jason Snelling (ankle) and LB Stephen Nicholas (thigh).