Twenty five years ago, Walt Harris took the field for the Chicago Bears during the 1996-97 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football. Not only did Harris turn in a dominating performance (nine tackles and a forced fumble), it was the last time Chicago started a rookie cornerback in a season opener.
That's all changed on Sunday, Sept. 13 of last year when Jaylon Johnson made his debut as the starting right cornerback for the Bears in the 2020 NFL season against the Detroit Lions.
While his debut might not have been as good as Harris' was, Johnson finished with six tackles and three passes defended. But Johnson's best play came on the game's most important one.
Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears cornerback — Courtesy of Chicago Bears
Clinging to a 27-23 lead on the final play of the game, the Lions had the ball in the Chicago redzone with one last chance for the win.
Then-Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford took the snap, bought some extra time, and lofted the ball into the corner of the endzone where wide receiver MarvinJones was waiting for the game-winning catch.
Enter Johnson and his game-saving play — who broke up the pass in the endzone to secure the season-opening win for the Bears.
While that play was surely a highlight of Johnson's season, he said his rookie year was one where he learned many lessons. Despite the steep learning curve, which Johnson says he feels so much prepared for this season, he's entering fall camp the most confident he's been in a ling time — and the main reason, he's finally healthy.
“I’m 100 percent healthy,” Johnson said. “There was no structural damage. There wasn’t anything major like that. I’m not going to go into the exact details of what exactly happened, but it was just about being able to get to 100 percent. I’ve been rehabbing, staying on top of my treatment and therapy on my shoulder. I’m just getting back healthy and trying to stay healthy.”
He finished with 44 tackles and 15 passes defended in 13 games, missing the final three due to a nagging shoulder injury that started in college and finally became to much to handle in the NFL.
But being healthy entering fall camp has allowed him to focus on the finer points of the position and the game itself. No longer focused on rehab, Johnson has been studying significantly more film and his technique over the offseason, and is more than ready to prove he's on the tier of being an elite cornerback.
“Just from last year, the game naturally slows down, getting that year under your belt,” Johnson said. “For me, just my body is more at ease. My mind is more at ease, being able to see things, being able to have better eyes and just a better understanding of what the offense is trying to do and just how the defense works as well. It’s just easier mentally, which allows my body to be able to play a little faster.”
Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson celebrates an incomplete pass intended for Detroit Lions receiver Marvin Jones on the final play of the Lions' 27-23 loss at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020 | ? Junfu Han via Imagn Content Services, LLC
For context though, Johnson isn't the only one thinking he's ready for a big season.
According to Pro Football Focus, Johnson has been pegged as one of the breakout players of the 2022 campaign.
“Cornerback has the steepest learning curve from college to the NFL. The biggest thing you want to see from a rookie like Johnson is holding up at the line of scrimmage and not getting burnt in man coverage,” the article stated. “And that’s where he impressed in 2020. His coverage grade among outside corners in man coverage was the second-best in the NFL.”
What makes Johnson ideal for a breakout season is that the one part he struggled most in — zone coverage — is where he thrived in college as one of the best cornerbacks. He ranked fifth-to-last in among cornerbacks in zone coverage grades, which is where he gave up 12 catches of 15-or-more yards throughout the season.
Ironically, zone coverage is where Johnson made a name for himself in college as one of the most physical and instinctive cornerbacks. As to why Johnson may have struggled in zone coverage at the pro level, it's best assumed that he was afraid to make a mistake and therefore played more safe, which doesn't suit his game. It stands to reason that the more he plays and adjusts to the game at the NFL, the more comfortable he will become and return to his old ways.
However, Johnson did thrive as a cover corner in man coverage. He finished with the second-highest grade among cornerbacks in man coverage.
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard (13) is hit hard by Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson (33) in the third quarter during their football game Sunday, November 29, 2020, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.
Not to be understated but one of the biggest reasons why Johnson could take that massive leap forward is the simple fact that he's getting actually time in the Chicago facility.?
Because the COVID-19 pandemic essentially shutdown training camps last season, Johnson is now in the building putting the work in.
“It’s not just after one year. Of course, that rookie year is the hardest,” Johnson said. “So just being able to learn from that and just trying to take all of my preparation throughout my years of playing football and being a leader throughout high school, throughout college. … It’s definitely beneficial being able to get live reps and not getting coached through Zoom and through meetings and having to learn virtually.”
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