Leonard Johnson, a former prep star in Clearwater, left the Bay area to play college football, emerging as a standout cornerback at Iowa State. He quite happily returned to his hometown to go to the next level, signing as an undrafted free agent with the Buccaneers this past spring. But it was back within 150 miles of Johnson’s college haunt that he had his first breakout game in the NFL.
Johnson impressed enough during the offseason and in training camp to earn a lasting spot on the Buccaneers’ regular-season roster, one of just two undrafted rookies to do so. And he has played in every game this season, the only Buccaneer undrafted rookie to do so. Both of those accomplishments are impressive unto themselves, but there’s no doubt that Thursday night’s game in Minnesota was his best moment as a pro so far.
After playing primarily on special teams during the Bucs’ first six games, Johnson took over a key role on the defense against the Vikings. With Brandon McDonald active for the game but dealing with a sore ankle, Johnson became the third corner into the game in nickel packages, though he didn’t specifically play the usual nickel-back role.
Rather, the Buccaneers chose to slide starting right cornerback Eric Wright into the slot against three-receiver formations, keeping him in charge of containing versatile threat Percy Harvin. That put Johnson on the outside, opposite starting left cornerback E.J. Biggers.
“Leonard stepped up and I thought played well and had an interception and was close to having two so that’s encouraging,” said Head Coach Greg Schiano on Friday. “You have a free agent rookie there that steps up and plays on the big stage and it wasn’t too big for him. We saw him do it in the preseason but for him to do it in a regular season game, on the road, that’s good stuff.”
Johnson’s interception came on the Bucs’ last defensive play of the game and it kept the Vikings from adding garbage-time points in Tampa Bay’s 36-17 win. QB Christian Ponder was trying to hit WR Michael Jenkins down the left sideline near the goal line, but Johnson leaped high to pick it off at the eight. Late in the first half, Johnson nearly had an interception as well on a pass intended for Harvin…the Vikings move Harvin around so much that he’s never going to have the same DB on him for the whole game. It looked as if Harvin was about to make a third-down catch inside the Bucs’ red zone, but Johnson somehow wrested the pass away from the receiver and nearly got two feet inbounds for the interception. Minnesota had to settle for a field goal.
In all, Johnson finished the game with two tackles, one interception and three passes defensed, which accounts for nearly all of his 2012 stats so far (he also had one pass defensed in the Bucs’ Week Six win over Kansas City). He also has one tackle on special teams and is likely to continue to help in that capacity for the rest of the season.
How much more time Johnson gets in the secondary in the coming weeks could depend on many factors, such as McDonald’s health and the return of Aqib Talib from suspension. However, the Bucs’ coaching staff can now be quite confident that no stage will be too big for the hometown rookie if they need to call on him again.