ARLINGTON – Lonnie Johnson Jr. reacted instinctively, snatching the ball alert when cornerback Tremon Smith deflected the pass.
From there, the Houston Texans third-year safety went to the races after intercepting Dallas Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci. Johnson sprinted without a touchdown, running 53 yards across the touchline for the touchdown on Saturday night in a preseason game at AT&T Stadium.
It marked Johnson’s first interception of NFL career, and he celebrated by throwing the football into the wall behind the end zone.
A former physically gifted second-round pick of Kentucky, which is the Texans’ tallest defensive back, Johnson has shown increased confidence and awareness during practice at training camp. He intercepted several passes during training sessions.
At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds with a speed of 4.38 in the 40-yard dash, Johnson has always had the size and athleticism required. Now that he has become more comfortable in the safe position since his transition from cornerback, he looks a lot more confident and instinctive.
Johnson is determined to continue to grow as a player.
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Since former Texans general manager Brian Gaine drafted Johnson, he has struggled with consistency issues while showing a lot of potential.
Signed for a four-year, $ 5.214 million contract, of which $ 3.039 million guaranteed with a signing bonus of $ 1.812 million, Johnson is in competition with returning starter Eric Murray for the right to play alongside Justin Reid.
“Adjusting to safety last year was pretty tough because I didn’t really know anything about it,” Johnson said earlier at training camp. “But this year, mentally, I’m ready for it. Mentally, I got better and that aspect of my game, and just the physical part, will always be there. You can work on your technique, work on your angles and get to certain places, knowing the concepts of course and all kinds of things like that. I’m just ready to take the next step at the security post.
Johnson played every game last season with five starts and clocked a career-high 76 tackles, one for a loss, with three presses from the quarterback. As a rookie, Johnson played 14 games with seven starts and recorded 41 tackles with seven assists defended and no interceptions.
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Johnson thrives in his fit with the 4-3 defense from new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith. He thinks fast and plays faster.
“I like it, it works for me,” Johnson said. It’s just more like spot, more for instinctive players. Just go over there and just do the parts, man. It’s yours. I had to have one today. It’s just up to you to go out there and make the bets and play fast.
Security, due to his physical style, seems to be the best solution for Johnson.
In a win over the New England Patriots last season, Johnson had two hits against Cam Newton. This included clutch squeeze with Reid that forced Newton to throw in an incomplete fourth delay late in the fourth quarter to secure a 27-20 victory.
“In the NFL it’s tough because they don’t let you hit the receivers much anymore because of the rules,” said Jeff Sims, Johnson’s junior coach at Garden City. “We taught Lonnie to be a physical corner. He could maim you on the line of scrimmage. It is long. He would beat you up. He would disrupt the timing. Safety is a great position for Lonnie.
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Playing for safety, coach Greg Jackson gave Johnson a different perspective on how to play. Jackson played it safe in the NFL for a dozen seasons, winning a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants and intercepting 32 career passes.
“Well, the first thing I saw was its length, its height, its length,” Jackson said. “I think he did a great job getting into the safe position and starting to figure out how to take the right angles for safety. It’s a little different from playing the corner position because you’re playing everything from the outside to the inside. With him, it’s more of a simple rehearsal for him and being consistent in what he does. He’s a very good player.
The confidence Johnson and Jackson are building could pay dividends for a changing Texas defense.
“He’s been a coach for a long time, so to come with that experience and help a young safety like me, that means a lot,” Johnson said. “He helped me with my angles, told me where I need to be and helped me break down the movie, something I’ve never really had before. He is a great help.
Johnson changed his jersey number from No.32 to No.1. Johnson is hoping it’s symbolic and embraces the pressure that comes with wearing that number in a revamped defense. The Texans had just two interceptions last season by defensive backs.
“Definitely, man, all of this defense, our job is to fly around the ball and get the ball back,” Johnson said. – That’s what we’re gonna do, man. We’re going to have take out for our attack, hand the ball over to whoever is over there as much as possible. “
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