Johnson’s reliable tackling helps Rams limit big pass plays

<p>
              Los Angeles Rams strong safety John Johnson celebrates after an inception against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
            </p>

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) — John Johnson has interceptions in consecutive games for the Los Angeles Rams, including the clinching pick in the end zone on fourth down against Cleveland on Sunday.

The third-year safety intercepted a pass by Drew Brees in overtime of the NFC championship game to help send the Rams to the Super Bowl last season.

However, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said some of the biggest plays Johnson makes are the ones that barely get noticed.

“He’s got a knack for making big plays, but I think the great thing about him is he’s an outstanding tackler,” Phillips said Thursday. “He is an outstanding open-field tackler. He makes a lot of tackles that could have gone for more yards if we had a lesser guy.”

Johnson has emerged as a key figure in a secondary that is not allowing explosive pass plays. Los Angeles has not allowed a reception longer than 30 yards through three games, and the longest catch by a wide receiver is 28 yards despite facing elite players such as Michael Thomas of New Orleans and the Browns’ duo of Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landy.

Phillips said being able to prevent yards after the catch in the open field is a main reason why the pass defense has been so effective, crediting the trio of safeties in Johnson, Eric Weddle and rookie Taylor Rapp for their part in cutting out big gains.

“People are going to throw the ball and catch the ball on you no matter what, so you got to make the play when the ball is thrown down the field,” Phillips said. “Make the tackle at eight yards instead of 15 or 20 or 25, whatever. We ask for good tacklers on defense.”

Johnson has 26 tackles, tied with middle linebacker Cory Littleton for the team lead, and his 12 solo tackles are second to Littleton’s 16.

Despite Phillips’ praise for his tackling, Johnson said it was not something that came naturally. The improvement began during his junior season at Boston College as Johnson got better at using his eyes to figure out where to tackle ballcarriers and determining closing angles.

Even with that growth continuing during his senior season and into the NFL, Johnson said tackling is still “one of the hardest things in football” and considers himself merely solid.

Cornerback Aqib Talib thinks Johnson is underselling himself.

“Honestly, me and MP (Marcus Peters) talk about his tackling all the time,” Talib said. “He’s one of the best tackling guys who I have played with, period. Whether it’s close-quarter tackles, wrap tackles, whatever, he’s a great tackler and that’s one of his best attributes.”

But those traits will be tested this week by Tampa Bay’s offense, which had four pass plays of 30 or more yards in the 32-31 loss to the New York Giants in Week 3. The biggest challenge will come from wide receiver Mike Evans, who already has catches of 41, 55, and 44 yards this season.

“You see the production, he’s in elite company,” coach Sean McVay said. “I want to say that Randy Moss and A.J. Green are the only other guys to be able to do what Mike Evans has done in the first five years of his career in terms of the production, so he’s a great player. Somebody we got to be aware of, and it’s a great challenge.”

Rams defensive backs understand the importance of not giving up chunk plays to Evans, but the presence of the steady Johnson seems to be giving them time to engage other high-profile receivers this week.

Weddle had a back and forth exchange on Twitter with Antonio Brown on Thursday, writing that the game “Never was and never will be” about the former New England wideout.

“I’m just worried about Tampa, so I don’t really know what’s got everyone in a ruckus,” Weddle joked.

“It’s in the past,” Weddle said. “I said what I said, he said what he said. It’s not worth talking about it because he’s not my teammate. He doesn’t play in the league, so there’s really no point.”

NOTES: TE Tyler Higbee (chest) and RG Austin Blythe (ankle) are “on pace” to play against Tampa Bay, McVay said. Higbee and Blythe were full participants in practice. … DE Michael Brockers did not practice because of illness, but McVay did not believe it would keep him from playing on Sunday.