Bears rookie running back Johnson believes his vision, understanding have improved greatly
Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy can see the gears in his rookie running back moving faster.
When the Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 27 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Johnson played a season-high 74% of offensive snaps. Johnson led all running backs in snaps, as well as in carries and receptions during a slugfest victory, 12-10 over the Vikings.
For the first time all season, Johnson served as the lead back. Starting running back Khalil Herbert had recently come back from an ankle injury and saw just 15 snaps (21%). Running back D'Onta Foreman was sidelined by an ankle injury of his own.
So the team turned to Johnson.
"It feels good to get those live reps and experience and just kind of further my resume and kind of bank those reps," Johnson said. "So it meant a lot just to be out there, but at the same time I feel like I can play way better. I feel like that was a good learning experience for me going into the rest of the season."
Johnson rushed for 35 yards on 10 carries and totaled 40 receiving yards on 5 catches. Getsy can visually see his rookie running back improving his processing speed on the field.
"Earlier this season he caught two or three check downs and he kind of froze and didn't get the first down," Getsy said. "The last two games, he's caught that thing, he's gotten vertical, he's made a guy miss and he's finishing forward."
The Bears selected Johnson with a fourth-round pick in the draft last April. He began the season as the clear No. 3 in the running back pecking order. Herbert led the NFL in yards per carry last year and totaled more than 700 rushing yards in 13 games. Foreman was coming off a 900-yard season in Carolina.
Johnson was the unproven rookie. The Bears liked him a lot coming out of Texas, where he was the backup to All-America running back Bijan Robinson. Johnson never really had a chance to take on the starring role for the Longhorns, but the Bears thought they saw something in him that showed he could do it.
Now 12 games into his rookie season, Johnson believes he has improved his understanding of the game more than anything.
"[I'm] grasping certain defensive looks in certain pressures," Johnson said. "Just being able to play a little quicker in identifying certain things. I think that definitely has slowed down over the course of the season."
That's exactly what Getsy sees, too. It's telling that both of them pointed to the same aspect of Johnson's game.
NFL rushing attacks, particularly outside zone blocking schemes like what the Bears run, can be tricky. A different offensive lineman could be moving horizontally across the formation to get out in space on each play. It's not as simple for the running back as getting the ball and running. He has to know where all the blockers are heading.
"[It's] definitely experience, getting into the heat of the moment and calming yourself down enough to focus and execute your assignment," Johnson said. "That comes with time."
All three running backs are expected to be healthy this weekend when the Bears take on the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. Who will be the lead back? That's pretty much anybody's guess.
Foreman leads all Bears running backs with 381 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns in seven games. Herbert has 331 yards but no rushing touchdowns in seven games. Johnson has played in 10 games and totaled 232 rushing yards and a score. Johnson leads all Bears running backs with 24 receptions for 131 receiving yards.
His abilities in the pass game could give him an edge over the other two in passing situations. He's also probably the best of the three as a pass blocker.
None of the Bears running backs found much success running the ball against a stout Lions defense three weeks ago. Quarterback Justin Fields led the Bears that day with 104 rushing yards. It seems plausible, though, that the Lions are going to make adjustments. The running backs will probably play a little bit bigger role in this game.
It seems likely that all three could see touches, but it's hard to feed the rock to three different running backs.
"Honestly, it's not really up to me how that's going to go," Johnson said. "It's not something I should really even bother myself worrying about. At the same time, I've got to prepare as if I'm the starter. That's how I'm going to go about it. Regardless of who's in there, I'll be prepared."