Veteran cornerback Trumaine Johnson is focused on having a strong 2019 season, this time working under a familiar face in coordinator Gregg Williams.
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — During a break in Sunday’s practice, New York Jets defensive coordinator Gregg Williams walked over to the bleacher section at training camp and addressed the sweaty and hopeful mob, giving the fans what he gives his players every day.
Fire and intensity.
He spoke for almost a minute in what amounted to a public service announcement, promising them that the coaches and players will do everything they can to defend their turf at MetLife Stadium. The crowd roared.
Williams is a culture changer, and the organization expects his loud, unfiltered style of coaching to send a surge of energy through the defense, which has been in hibernation since 2015. Specifically, the hope is that he can revitalize the career of one Trumaine Johnson, who is trending toward free-agent bust after one season in New York.
Johnson failed to live up to his massive contract, a disappointing season punctuated by a healthy scratch in Week 17 — punishment for an unexcused practice absence. There were similar transgressions throughout the season, a source said. He came under heavy criticism, and it chafed him.
That was then. Now it’s all about R & R — reunion and redemption.
The veteran cornerback played his best football under Williams when they were together with the St. Louis and Los Angeles Rams (2014-16), and he parlayed that success into back-to-back franchise tags and a monster free-agent deal from the Jets — five years, $73 million. His cash earnings over the past three years (two with the Rams, one with the Jets):
A cool $56.7 million. Not bad for someone with zero Pro Bowls.
If he has another subpar season, Johnson will go down with Darrelle Revis and Muhammad Wilkerson as big-money washouts. This franchise hasn’t had much luck in recent years with mega-contracts.
“Our goal is to get him back to that level where, whether it was L.A. or St. Louis, we were scared to throw to his side of the field,” said Adam Gase, alluding to his days as the Miami Dolphins‘ coach.
Johnson is athletically gifted, there’s no doubt about that, but he’s the type of player who needs to be coached hard. The previous staff, led by Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers, used the velvet-glove approach. Williams will come at him with an iron fist.
“Gregg’s not shy about saying anything to anyone,” Gase said. “I think Trumaine likes it like that. I think Trumaine wants to be someone that gets coached. Good players want to be coached.”
The Jets need Johnson to be a legitimate CB1 if they have any hope of being a good defensive team. Everybody knows Williams likes to blitz a lot, and it’s hard to play that way if you can’t trust your corners to hold up in coverage. The only other experienced corners are Darryl Roberts and Brian Poole, neither of whom will be confused for a lockdown defender.
Really, it’s on Williams to fix Johnson.
“He understands me, I understand him,” Williams said recently. “It’s my job to help him be the best he can be. … He and I had some really good moments together.”
Johnson, as if following a script, repeated the same sentiment when asked about Williams.
“He knows my playing style and I know his coaching style,” he said. “I know what he expects and I’m going to do everything he expects of me.
“He gets the most out of his players, that’s for sure. That’s everywhere he’s been. You see when he was with the Browns; he had a good defense over there. When he got to head coach, they started winning games. I believe everybody believes in him. He’s a player’s coach. That’s what you’re looking for.”
Johnson refused to acknowledge that 2018 was an off year for him. Maybe it’s denial; maybe it’s competitive arrogance. When asked if he has something to prove, he flashed a dismissive smile, as if to say, “Why would you ask me that?”
Statistically, his performance was on par with his final season in Los Angeles. He allowed a 73.4 passer rating when targeted, up just a tick from his 72.4 mark in 2017, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Problem was, his good moments (four interceptions, including one for a touchdown) were overshadowed by game-changing mistakes.
He allowed a 67-yard touchdown pass to the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Donte Moncrief, he contributed to late-game collapses with killer penalties against the Cleveland Browns and Green Bay Packers, and on his first play after returning from a five-game quadriceps injury, he was torched for 47 yards by Buffalo Bills rookie Robert Foster.
The Jets’ previous regime signed Johnson because it felt he would be a great fit in Bowles’ press-man scheme, but it was a square-peg, round-hole decision because he wasn’t deployed that way with the Rams.
In 2017, he was in press coverage only 16.3 percent of the time, per Next Gen Stats. That number didn’t change much last season — 16.7 percent, 59th among 73 corners with a minimum of 50 targets. (Press coverage is defined as lining up less than 3 yards from the receiver at snap; it includes only when targeted as the nearest defender.)
Truth is, he thrived as an off-coverage corner, in large part because Aaron Donald was a wrecking machine up front. One of the reasons Johnson was exposed last season was because the Jets didn’t have a dominant pass-rusher.
From an intangibles standpoint, Williams will get the best out of Johnson, challenging him at every turn. As linebacker Jordan Jenkins said of Williams, “He’s just loud and angry, which is my kind of guy. It’s balls to the wall.” Thin-skinned players won’t be able to handle it. Johnson knows the Williams way, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
The question is whether Johnson, 29, at this stage of his career, can be the type of corner that Williams covets. In terms of scheme, it might take an adjustment. Williams’ top corner last season in Cleveland, Denzel Ward, recorded a press-coverage rate of 35 percent. Johnson never was that aggressive, not even in his first go-round with the defensive guru.
The Jets hope to somehow re-create the 2015-16 version of Johnson.
“He has a good look right now,” Gase said. “He’s focused and he wants to have a good year.”