“You want your players to buy into the system, and you want guys to feel special,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things I liked about growing up in the Giants system. Bill and Bill, when they did bring me along, they gave me a small spot, and it was just short-yardage and goal-line, and they were like, ‘Own this. Take ownership in this small role, and if you do well in this small role, you’re gonna play more.’ And eventually, I grew into the system, and I did play more as the season progressed.
“And we kept that same attitude throughout my years there. You have that situation still going on today. You have a guy who’s in a certain package, or you have coaches telling, ‘Hey, we’re running this defense, and matching you with this guy.’ Or ‘We want to blitz this formation because we know you can do this. … Our money is on you.’ You put guys in those positions and you try to adapt and adjust, and guys take ownership and feel good about themselves and being in the game plan. You find guys playing good ball, playing above their means.”
Because of all those situational types of roles available, Johnson mentioned “we have like 17 guys on our defense that are really considered starters.”. He wasn’t kidding.
I went to Pro Football Focus, and came up with this stat — 16 different players played 400 or more snaps for the defense last year. Here’s the breakdown …
Interior defensive line: Mike Wright (629), Jarvis Green (608), Vince Wilfork (565), Ty Warren (503)
Outside linebacker/rush end: Tully Banta-Cain (725), Adalius Thomas (601), Derrick Burgess (559)
Inside linebacker: Gary Guyton (874), Jerod Mayo (791)
Cornerback: Leigh Bodden (876), Jonathan Wilhite (580), Shawn Springs (525), Darius Butler (525)
Safety: Brandon Meriweather (1,028), Brandon McGowan (737), James Sanders (428)
Now, considering all the turnover on defense, and attrition (Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour), I found it interesting that only five of those 16 players were in their first year with the team.
Those five were Bodden, McGowan, Burgess, Springs and Butler, with Butler being the only player among those with less than four years of NFL experience.
You can glean a couple things from this.
First, the best projection might be to figure a situational role for the rookies (like maybe Brandon Spikes in short yardage, or Jermaine Cunningham as a nickel rusher). And second, a leap in playing time and roles can be expected for young vets like Patrick Chung (195 snaps in 2009), Myron Pryor (284) and Rob Ninkovich (127), who drew significant enough snaps last year to indicate the coaches trusted them to fill a role while breaking them in to the system.
Chung, in particular, is one guy I’d expect to make a leap.