Von Miller or Bradley Chubb? Chris Harris Jr. or Kareem Jackson? Derek Wolfe or Todd Davis?
Heading into the 2019 season, these six Broncos were the most-likely candidates to be the key to the team’s defense. Denver had hired Vic Fangio to be their new head coach, a guru on that side of the ball, so these players also figured to be the linchpins to the season.
With a Super Bowl MVP, multiple Pro Bowl selections and roughly $59 million in salary cap space among them, they were supposed to be the most-important players on the roster. They needed to be playmakers and leaders, both on and off the field.
Through the first four games of the season, they were anything but those things. They weren’t producing between the lines and they were chirping to the media, a lethal combination.
As a result, it came as no surprise that the Broncos were 0-4. Their most-talented and highest-paid players weren’t doing what was expected of them when the year began.
If Denver was going to turn things around and salvage their season, one of them was going to have to have a big day in Los Angeles. Someone was going to have to step up against the Chargers and carry the team to its first victory of the season.
No one imagined that it would be an unknown linebacker getting the first start of his career who would fill that role, however.
That’s not to say that others didn’t show up. Miller was all over the field, being much more impactful than just the two total tackles that showed up on the stat sheet. Jackson had a team-high eight tackles and showed how important he is to Denver’s run defense. And Harris Jr. held Keenan Allen to a relatively meaningless four catches for 18 yards.
But none of them were the most important Bronco in the game. That role was reserved for the player getting his first defensive snaps of the season.
A.J. Johnson made the two biggest plays of the day, keeping the Chargers off the scoreboard when they were knocking on the door. And in the process, he helped a beleaguered group get back their swagger.
Late in the first half, Los Angeles was driving. They had marched all the way to the Broncos three-yard line, about to cut the lead to 17-7 before halftime. And since the Chargers were getting the ball after intermission, they were on the cusp of getting right back in the game.
On third-and-goal, L.A. had the perfect play called. Philip Rivers hit Austin Ekeler in the right flat, a completion that should’ve allowed the running back to waltz into the end zone. But at the snap, Johnson recognized the play and sprinted toward the sidelines. He hit Ekeler just as the ball arrived, stopping him a yard short of the goal line.
The Chargers would roll the dice on fourth down and fail to convert, heading to the locker room with a goose egg on the scoreboard. Johnson made the key play.
Late in the third quarter, Los Angeles had another golden opportunity to get back into the game. Joe Flacco had thrown an interception deep in Broncos territory, giving the Chargers the ball at the five-yard line. Two plays later, they once again faced a third-and-goal, this time from the two.
Rivers tried to squeeze a pass into the end zone, but Johnson jumped in front of it and snagged an interception. Once again, the linebacker made a key play to keep points off the scoreboard.
Contrast those moments to what went down during the first four games of the season. During those losses, the Broncos defense failed to make a play when they had to.
Late in games, they couldn’t stop the Bears or the Jaguars. After a Flacco fumble in Green Bay, they couldn’t keep the Packers out of the end zone. Time after time, Denver’s marquee unit was tasked with making a play to mitigate damage, change momentum of seal a victory. In each instance, they failed to answer the bell.
It would be unfair to pin all of the blame on Josey Jewell, the inside linebacker who Johnson was replacing in the starting lineup. But it also wouldn’t be completely inaccurate.
Yes, Jewell led the Broncos in tackles through four games, posting a total of 27 despite being hobbled with a hamstring injury. But they were hollow statistics; there wasn’t an impact play in the bunch.
In comparison, Johnson made plays in key situations. He stopped running backs short of the goal line. He intercepted passes in the end zone. He had a tackle for a loss. And he knocked down another pass that easily could’ve been his second pick of the day.
Johnson did more in one afternoon than Jewell has done during his entire tenure in Denver. As a result, the Broncos have perhaps found the missing piece to their defense.
Heading into the season, everyone knew that middle linebacker was the team’s weak spot. Few had much faith in the combination of Davis and Jewell. That’s why it was borderline shocking when John Elway and Company didn’t sign anyone in free agency or select anyone in the draft to provide competition at that position.
During training camp, no one stepped out of the shadows to make the choice tough for the coaching staff. Davis went down during the team’s first practice with a sprained ankle and Jewell was sidelined for several days with an oblique injury, providing ample opportunities for a backup to prove they were worthy of playing time. No one did.
And during the first four games of the season, this trend continued. Corey Nelson was signed just before the opener at Oakland, but he’s failed to shine after being immediately thrust into action. And rookie Justin Hollins seemed miscast in the middle of the defense.
Almost out of desperation, the Broncos gave Johnson a shot on Sunday. And finally, a linebacker seized the day in Denver.
For Fangio’s defense to thrive, he needs to have playmaking linebackers in the middle. NaVorro Bowman was that guy in San Francisco and Roquan Smith filled that role in Chicago, just to name two.
It’s way too early to declare that Johnson is ready to play at that level. But on Sunday, in a game that the Broncos had to have, he certainly looked the part, making the key plays in Denver’s first win of the season.
“I like A.J.,” Vic Fangio said after the game, once again tossing compliments around like they were manhole covers. “I think he has the ability to be an NFL linebacker. I thought he played well today.”
Forget about Miller, Chubb, Harris. Jr., Jackson, Wolfe and Davis. A.J. Johnson may ultimately prove to be the most-important player on the Broncos defense, a group that has to shine if Denver is going to turn around what looked like a lost season heading into Los Angeles.
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