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DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 3: Linebacker Alexander Johnson #45 of the Denver Broncos hands an American Flag over to a member of the military on the field before game against the Cleveland Browns at Empower Field at Mile High on November 3, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
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Alexander Johnson has been the Broncos biggest surprise in 2019

(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)

Vic Fangio isn’t a warm-and-fuzzy guy. Most of the time, this is an endearing trait of the Broncos head coach. In a world full of too much insincere niceties, his old-school approach is typically a breath of fresh air.

That said, Fangio does have a tendency to take it too far. While his honest assessment of players and situations is great, his inability to offer any kind of public praise seems like something that could eventually backfire.

This started on day one, when he challenged Von Miller to be a better player during his introductory press conference. And it continued through training camp, including a refusal to compliment Drew Lock’s performance when the rookie dazzled the crowd during the team’s stadium practice.

At the time, those were seen as “tough love” moments. If the head coach is willing to push the team’s best player, then everyone would be on notice that a lot was expected of them. If Fangio isn’t willing to gush over a high draft pick, then every rookie would understand that nothing would be handled to them.

That’s all well and good. For the most part, it’s a fine approach. But there has to be a balance.

Every once in a while, the hard-scrabble coach needs to show a softer side. On occasion, the constant kicks to the rear end need to be replaced by a pat on the back.

Such was the case earlier in the week when Fangio was asked about Alexander Johnson. The linebacker stepped into the starting lineup in Week 5, providing a lift for the defense by filling a huge hole in the middle. The impact has been impossible not to notice, but Fangio was less than effusive when talking about Johnson’s play.

“He’s not perfect yet, but he’s played really well for us,” the head coach told the media.

Not perfect? That’s the standard for a playing making his first five starts in the NFL? Anything short of that level of play isn’t going to suffice.

Man, talk about a high bar. Demanding excellence is one thing, but being realistic is also important.

So far this season, Johnson has 41 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception. Contrast that to Josey Jewell, the player he replaced at middle linebacker; the veteran has 30 tackles, 0.5 sacks, no forced fumbles and no interceptions.

Just looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Johnson has been an upgrade. The fact that Denver’s defense has improved as a group, including a shutout of the Jaguars and an uptick in big plays, is even more evidence.

Yesterday, news came down that others are seeing how important Johnson has been to the Broncos. Pro Football Focus named him the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for October.

Despite injuries and ineffective play from the Broncos’ linebacking corps to open the season, Johnson didn’t crack the defensive rotation until Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers. Since then, all he has done is earn the highest overall grade of any defender in the AFC. Johnson’s 29 total tackles without a missed tackle are the most of any player in the league over the month of October, and despite being targeted 20 times as the primary coverage defender (sixth-most among linebackers over the last four weeks), Johnson is allowing just under six yards per target on those plays. He’s proving to Vic Fangio and company that he deserves a spot on the field.

That’s pretty impressive for any player. It’s particularly noteworthy given that this happened during the first month in which Johnson has played in the NFL. The linebacker had never appeared in a game prior to Oct. 6 at the Chargers.

Despite that accomplishment, Fangio’s comments were tempered.

“He’s been a nice shot in the arm for us,” the head coach offered. “He’s really played good.”

You think?

The biggest hole in Denver’s defense heading into the offseason was middle linebacker. They didn’t address it during free agency and they passed on a top-flight player at that position in the draft, trading back to No. 20 instead of taking Devin Bush at No. 10. So it was imperative that the Broncos find someone on their current roster to step up and seize the opportunity in the middle of the defense.

Since returning from injury, veteran Todd Davis has been fine in one of the two spots. But Josey Jewell failed to be the answer alongside him, repeatedly getting manhandled in the run game and being a liability in coverage.

Johnson, on the other hand, has been up to the challenge. He’s been good enough that what was once seen as a glaring hole in Denver’s defense is now a position that won’t need to be a top priority heading into 2020.

That’s a monumental accomplishment. It’s arguably the biggest surprise of the season.

For that, Alexander Johnson deserves some praise. Even from an old-school coach.


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