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Johnson quick to recognize positive signs

FOXBOROUGH -- Tom Brady to Bethel Johnson. Touchdown.

It was just one play in a game in which the New England Patriots had 58 offensive snaps.

But it was more than just a play.

It was a matchup between friends, special friends. It was more evidence that Johnson can be as explosive as any player in the NFL. It was another sign the Patriots' game preparation can be brilliant.

It was Johnson taking advantage of an opportunity, and maybe, this time, the 55-yard touchdown is more than a flash. Maybe it opens the curtains for the appearance of the Bethel Johnson many have longed to see since the Patriots drafted him in the second round in 2003.

The matchup.

Bethel Johnson is serious about his faith. Not only is he is most often seen in the locker room wearing a religious T-shirt, he rarely engages in conversation that doesn't eventually come around to his commitment to his beliefs.

When he ran into the end zone last Sunday after scoring his first touchdown of the season, he pointed skyward.

Before the ball was snapped on the play, Johnson looked eye to eye with the man who has a lot to do with the man he has become.

Atlanta cornerback Jason Webster, the victim of Johnson's big play, is more than just a friend.

''He introduced me to Christ," Johnson said. ''We have a great friendship, and will always have a great friendship because of that."

Webster and Johnson were teammates at Texas A&M, and though Johnson remembers winning his share of practice field battles, he could tell by the way Webster played him that his buddy remembers those days as well.

''He remembered the best way to try to attack me was to get me early . . . but that was when I was in college," Johnson said. ''He used to be so much stronger than I was. I only bench [pressed] 290 pounds then.

''He knows me; I think that's why he rolled up on me like that."

These days, thanks in part to the program run by strength coach Mike Woicik, Johnson can comfortably handle more than 400 pounds. So when Webster came up in tight, man-to-man coverage, Johnson easily fought off the chuck.

The explosion.

Johnson doesn't really know how fast he is. He hasn't timed himself in the 40-yard dash in a while. But in the NFL, a time of 4.4 seconds in the 40 is fast, a 4.3 is really fast, and a 4.2 is, well, Bethel Johnsonish. (And he has covered that distance in 4.19 seconds.)

After clearing space between himself and Webster, Johnson looked back for the pass from Brady, who had launched it with all his might.

''He can't throw it no farther," defensive assistant Pepper Johnson yelled as the team celebrated the score on the sideline.

Johnson was cruising, while Webster was running as fast as he could just to keep up. When Johnson took a couple of relatively slower steps to locate the ball, Webster followed suit. When Johnson shifted back into gear, Webster was done. Well done. Toasted.

''He's so fast, I dropped back and I looked -- and, to tell you the truth, I didn't really even see him -- and I threw it as far as I could, and he ran under it," Brady said after the game. ''He's that kind of player; he really can add a different dimension. It was good to get him the ball."

The play call.

It was easier for Brady to get the ball to Johnson on that play than any other play the Patriots ran through the first 2 1/2 quarters. That touchdown sprint was Johnson's first offensive play of the game.

He was surprised. Not that he got into the game, but because it was that play the Patriots chose to run.

''You have to always be ready," he said. ''When your number is called, you have to be prepared.

''All I thought about when I ran onto the field was, 'Do your job.' That's what was going through my head. That's what you're here for."

The beauty of it was Johnson wasn't in the game when the Patriots originally lined up to run the play. A false start backed them up 5 yards, then Brady was forced to call a timeout when Benjamin Watson and David Givens appeared to become confused in a set.

Brady walked over to quarterbacks coach Josh McDaniels, had an eight-second conversation, and Johnson came running onto the field.

Eight seconds after the snap, he was running into the end zone and praising the Lord with only his second catch of the season.

The opportunity.

One play. One touchdown.

After that, Johnson was in for only one more offensive play against the Falcons. And though he is the team's top kickoff return man, and a gunner on punt teams, the Patriots didn't use a second-round pick on him to get fewer than a catch per contest (28 receptions in 31 games).

In the spring, coach Bill Belichick said he expected more from Johnson.

''I don't think that the issue is talent," Belichick said at the time. ''It's more from a consistency standpoint and being able to gain the experience, and do it competitively the right way every time."

Johnson was particularly diligent this offseason, in hopes of proving he could be a dependable, consistent weapon in the offense. A broken foot in May put those hopes on hold.

''I mean, he missed about 40 practices," Belichick said Wednesday. ''You don't just make that up by talking about it. You just have to work hard to catch up. You're not going to make up 40 practices in a couple of regular-season weeks. You just can't do it.

''[Compared to where he would be without the injury] it's never going to be apples to apples. But I think he's working hard. He's gaining ground. He's certainly doing all he can and I think he's making a lot of progress. But he's starting pretty far back."

Johnson, who catches most everything near him, points to improved route running as a way to open the door.

''I'm getting better at that," he said. ''I've worked at it, worked the whole offseason, prior to getting hurt, to get better. It's pretty good now, and getting better."

Getting better is the only thing Johnson believes he can do to increase his opportunities.

''I constantly have to remind myself the things you go through in life are just for a moment," Johnson said. ''I have to think that way. Everything's just a moment.

''I don't worry about things I can't control. I have to try to stay consistent and continue to get better."

If so, more moments such as the special one last Sunday in Atlanta are sure to come.

Jerome Solomon can be reached at jsolomon@globe.com

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