With the national spotlight shining down on the Denver Broncos defense, back up linebacker Steven Johnson made arguably the most important play of the season.
Johnson, an undrafted second-year pro out of Kansas and a havoc-wrecker on special teams, made the most of his three-play opportunity that Sunday night, coming across the gap to stop Chiefs’ running back Jamaal Charles and to force fourth down at the one yard line.
The play happened exactly a month ago.
If Johnson was a step slower reading the play, Kansas City would have converted the easy touchdown opportunity and tied the game, and potentially go onto win it and take full control of the AFC West.
Instead, the Chiefs settled for a field goal and Denver went on to win 27-17, taking reign over the division in front of their home crowd.
Since, Johnson has been relegated back to his former duties of riding the bench on defense and making almost every other play on special teams.
He’s been described as a ready-to-go-at-any-moment type of player, who shows — like he did against Kansas City on that third and one play — why he should be on the football field more and doesn’t complain when he’s not.
With the Broncos’ coaching staff scrambling to fix the inconsistencies on defense, it’s surprising, if not offensive, that Denver hasn’t given a player of Johnson’s potential a starting opportunity yet.
“I love my role on the team,” Johnson said after the win on Nov. 17. “We’ve got a lot of good linebackers. I’m just another one of the guys who comes in every day and works hard and waits for my opportunity. It’ll come one day.”
The problem is Johnson shouldn’t have to wait anymore.
Head coach John Fox has made it be known that their are problems on defense — targeting linebacker Wesley Woodyard and Duke Ihenacho, specifically, but failing to produce adequate personnel to quell the compiling concerns.
Also worth noting — a topic Fox hasn’t brought to light, and almost all media members have avoided — is the team’s lack of a vocal leader on the defensive side of the ball. Players like Von Miller, Champ Bailey and Woodyard are known as “quiet leaders,” but there needs to be a loud man out there who can spark some spirit in what has become a dull, aggression-depleted group of players.
Johnson can be that player, and most likely will become him next season unless the Broncos spend a high draft pick on a linebacker, which they haven’t done since picking DJ Williams in the first round in 2004.
On the current depth chart, Johnson plays behind Danny Trevathan — another second year pro, who has earned his spot in the starting lineup.
With that said, if Fox is comfortable giving players such as Paris Lenon looks at middle linebacker, then he should be willing to shift Johnson from outside to inside — even if only for a few plays.
If you re-watch the tackle Johnson made on Charles — and yes, it’s only one play, then you can see that Johnson read the play like a middle linebacker and has the instincts to play the position, although its not his natural one.
On a team led by a record-setting Peyton Manning, it may sound preposterous that a small-time, special teams player like Johnson could be the difference between Super Bowl or bust, but the stakes are too high not to give the man more looks over the next few weeks. If the team isn’t happy with its defensive production — and it shouldn’t be — that means every player on defense should be in the rotation until the best 11 are found and put on the field.
And based on last Thursday’s performance, that unit has still yet to be found.
Luckily for the Broncos, they may have a star in the making in Steven Johnson. All he needs is the opportunity.