The New York Giants added a depth piece to their defensive line when they signed Austin Johnson, a former second-round pick by the Tennessee Titans in 2016. Johnson, like many of the new additions, has ties to the Giants’ coaching staff as Sean Spencer was Johnson’s positional coach at Penn State and is now the defensive line coach for the Giants.
The 6-foot-4, 314-pound Johnson never lived up to his second-round pedigree, but at only 25 years old, reuniting with a former coach in a rotational role could serve Johnson well. Under Spencer’s tutelage during Johnson’s final (junior) campaign as a Nittany Lion, he racked up 78 tackles, 15 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks as an interior defensive lineman. There was promise, but it never materialized. Now Johnson will try to earn snaps behind a talented, young, group of players. The Giants defensive line depth chart for 2020 has Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, B.J. Hill, R. McIntosh, Chris Slayton, Kevin Wilkins, and now Johnson.
It’ll be tough to earn snaps. Johnson is a mediocre athlete, at best, for the position. Isn’t overly explosive, and does not possess the lateral agility to dominate angles at the line of scrimmage. Despite his lack of athletic ability, Johnson played 325 defensive snaps for the Titans in 2019, and 399 in 2018. He was able to see the field because he’s a solid run defender that can play multiple inside positions.
Let’s look at the film.
Against the Colts, Johnson’s lined up as the 3-technique on the outside shoulder of the strong side guard. Center Ryan Kelly (78) is tasked with a hard assignment to locate Johnson and drive him laterally down the line of scrimmage. Johnson uses good leverage to get inside Kelly and keep him from acquiring his chest, which allows Johnson to keep his eyes on the running back and not allow a cut-back lane to develop, while still maintaining lateral flow, if necessary. Johnson sees Jonathan Williams (33) break inside, so he uses a strong inside arm shove to allow Kelly’s momentum to keep going down the line of scrimmage. Johnson locates Williams and tosses him viciously to the deck.
In the second clip, against the Colts, Johnson is the 1-technique on the outside shade of the center. Johnson gains the chest of Kelly and the linebackers coming around both sides of Johnson force the blockers to give Johnson a reprieve. Johnson uses a strong inside arm shove to assist Kelly off the block and to open up the play-side A-Gap, which is when Johnson locates Williams again in the hole and makes the tackle.
In the third clip, against the Panthers, Johnson is lined up as the weak-side 3-technique. He does an excellent job shedding the block of the tackle and forcing him off balance, which doesn’t allow him to locate the linebacker at the second level. Then Johnson squeezes around the guard, but still maintains the guard’s attention, to get wham blocked by Greg Olsen (88). Essentially, Johnson takes out three blockers on this play and allows his linebackers to make an easy tackle on Christian McCaffrey.
Here sare more quality run defending clips from Johnson. As a 1-technique against the Indianapolis Colts, Johnson is able to explode off the ball and win the chest of the guard. He then backs the guard up into the backfield and pulls him to the deck. The end result for the Colts isn’t bad, but Johnson maintains his gap discipline, wins at the point of attack, and forces the running back to lose leverage in that A and B-gap.
Against the Panthers, Johnson is at 3-technique, and sheds the center’s block. He wins with pad level and a strong inside hand, then he locates the ball carrier and makes the tackle.
The third play is against the Saints, as a 4-technique directly over the tackle. It’s an outside zone run play from the Saints, and Johnson takes on his reach block from the guard and presses laterally while watching Taysom Hill (7). Once Hill tries to cut inside, Johnson stops his outside movement and comes off the block to fill the gap and make the tackle.
Johnson also has value in other places.
Above are two clips that show mental processing, timing, and a simple disruptive ability. Seems simple, right? The ball is coming in your direction, put your hand in the air to bat it down. Well, it’s not that simple, when 300-plus pound linemen are trying to bully you around. Johnson’s ability to be attentive in these situations are valuable, and you can see it above. Watch how Johnson creates the separation at the line of scrimmage against the Panthers guard. He comes off the ball low, explodes through his hip, and uses his inside arm to create more space. Quickly, Johnson knows that quarterback Kyle Allen is operating in quick game and is looking to throw the football, so Johnson backs up from the rush and follows the young quarterback’s eyes. Trusting what he sees, Johnson reacts instantaneously to knock the ball down at the line of scrimmage and prevent an easy gain on the inside slant.
Johnson also blocked this important kick against the Colts. Sure, Adam Vinatieri may have put it low, but Johnson was able to get his hand on it and save three points.
There is a reason Johnson only has 2.5 sacks on his career. The lack of athletic ability, twitch, bend, and explosiveness will affect a player’s ability to see the field in passing situations. He can pack a powerful punch, and he flashes a move every now and again, but it’s inconsistent. Usually, his pass rush reps are uneventful and he just gets stuck in front of blocks. I’ve seen some bull-rush promise, but the lack of explosiveness doesn’t maximize some of the lower body strength he possesses.
That is evident in the clips above. Johnson doesn’t have the ability to win 1-on-1 reps in a quick and timely manner against the pass. That’s not why he’s on a roster. In four seasons with the Titans, he has 15 hurries and 3 quarterback hits, according to Pro Football Focus.
In the clips above, Johnson is always just a step or two late to make his pass rushing move effective. Against Ryan Kelly of the Colts, he tries the club/swim combination from the 1-technique. Johnson does a solid job setting Kelly up with a hard outside foot jab, to get Kelly out of position, but it takes too long to develop. Despite the good position, there’s not a lot of bend or lateral agility to get around Kelly with ease.
In the next clip, again from the 1-technique position, Johnson gets chipped by the guard and engaged by Kelly. Johnson is able to gain some ground on Kelly and works the half man relationship up and through the outside shoulder. Once Johnson gets Kelly out of position, he uses his inside arm to club the midsection of Kelly and utilizes a “hump” type of move to throw Kelly to the deck. I love the move and the fact that he put it together, but once again it’s too late.
As the 1-technique against the Panthers, Johnson bull rushes, grabs both arms of the center, tosses both arms to the left, and then brings his own outside arm over the top of the center, creating separation and an alley to the quarterback. A nice move that altered the play and flushed Allen out of the pocket. A very minimal gain for the Panthers, and an effective pass rushing rep for Johnson.
Adding a familiar face, at a cheap price, for defensive line coach Sean Spencer is a wise move to help continuity. I don’t care that the defensive line is deep, as long as the deal is a low cost one and has little to no ramifications if Johnson fails to make the roster. Johnson is a competent 1-gapping run defender, who can effectively play anywhere along the interior defensive line. He’s got some pop in his hands, always hustles, and does a good job maintaining gap discipline. He offers little pass rushing disruption from the interior parts of the line and he lacks the desired athletic ability, bend, explosiveness, and twitch to be effective in passing down situations. He’ll have to beat out Chris Slayton, Kevin Wilkins, and RJ McIntosh to earn any kind of snaps in this deep rotation. I hope Coach Spencer can find some kind of spark to ignite the player who warranted a second-round pick, but his baseline athletic traits aren’t inspiring. Hopefully Johnson can be a solid rotational defender on first and second downs, while contributing on special teams for the Giants.