Much has been made of the issues at Safety for the Dallas Cowboys. The position has been a problem area for many years. Too many times have we seen QB’s hit wide open WR’s with nothing but turf in front of them, all because of a blown coverage or misread by our DB’s. Having said that, you can’t put all of the blame on our secondary, or more specifically our Safeties. Whether you’re playing offense or defense, it all starts up front. If you have a dominant secondary but no pass rush, your defense is doomed. However, if you have a ruthless pass rush, it can make an average secondary look elite.
Barry Church is proof that good play in the secondary doesn’t mean much without help from the big guys up front. Church led all DB’s in tackles this season.. And I’m not talking about on the team, I’m talking about the entire NFL. Most people see that as a sign of him giving up too many plays and catches, but I see it as a sign of him doing his job. The D-line was terrible at generating pressure last year, giving the QB all day to find open WR’s. I don’t care if we had Woodson and Prime Time back there, no one can cover NFL WR’s for nearly 10 seconds on every play. This put a lot of pressure on Church. As a safety, he is the last line of defense. Either he makes an open field tackle, or he potentially gives up a TD. Much more times than not, Church made the stop.
His efforts and commitment nearly earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl this year. Next to Church, however, is a different story. Heath often seemed lost and confused, while Wilcox is still fairly new to the position and is pretty raw. Then there is one name that a lot of Cowboys fans seem to have forgotten.. Matt Johnson.
The Cowboys drafted Johnson with high hopes. Coming out of a small school in Washington, Johnson was a big fish in a small pond. He is incredibly smart and instinctive and is always around the ball. He kind of reminds me of the DB version of Sean Lee. Sadly, not many people have had a chance to see Johnson’s impressive traits due to the seemingly contagious “injury bug” that has plagued Valley Ranch. Many fans have been calling for the Cowboys to move on because of this. They find it hard to understand why the Cowboys are sticking with Johnson. Why keep an injury prone player, right? Well I had a chance to talk with Johnson over the phone, and asked him about his health, his mindset, what motivates him, and what his goals are. Check out the interview below.
JORDAN ROSS – First off, how are you feeling? How far along are you in your rehab?
MATT JOHNSON – I’m doing good. Just started running a couple weeks ago, and have been doing everything else for about a month now. I’m just focused on coming back stronger than last year.
JORDAN ROSS – Will you be ready for OTA’s and minicamp?
MATT JOHNSON – Yes, I’ll be ready.
JORDAN ROSS – How frustrating has it been battling so many injuries during your first 2 years in the NFL? And what kind of steps have you taken to prevent them in the future?
MATT JOHNSON – It’s been super frustrating. I got injured in my senior year in college, but other than that, I had never missed a game. I was never injury prone, so it’s been frustrating. I’ve just been eating healthy, not pushing myself as hard while working out, and working on my flexibility a little bit more.
JORDAN ROSS – Other than injuries, what was the most difficult transition for you coming out of college and into the NFL?
MATT JOHNSON – Being away from friends and family. Being by myself was tough. There’s a lot of great guys on the team though, and I made a lot of friends. But at first, it can be kind of lonely.
JORDAN ROSS – Which veterans have taken you under their wing since you’ve been a Cowboy? What all have they taught you?
MATT JOHNSON – Gerald Sensabaugh took me under his wing in my rookie year. We were both banged up early on, so we spent a lot of time together. Also, Barry Church. He’s been a great mentor. He shows me the ropes. I can overthink things sometimes, so they taught me that whatever happens, happens, and to work my butt off.
JORDAN ROSS – Speaking of Church, he’s considered a lock at one of the starting Safety spots, but the other spot is up for grabs. You, Wilcox, Heath, Hamilton, and maybe even a free agent or draft pick, will be battling in camp for the other spot. What do you think you can provide that will set you apart from the other guys and give you an advantage?
MATT JOHNSON – My ball skills. I made a lot of plays on the ball in college, created a lot of turnovers. I’m also a sure tackler in the back end. I feel like I could bring some consistency to the safety position, and could get the ball back to our offense and give them some more opportunities.
JORDAN ROSS – After a rough year for the defense, a lot of fans are concerned about Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli returning next season. Does the team still have confidence in Coach Kiffin and Coach Marinelli?
MATT JOHNSON – We have a ton of confidence in them. Marinelli does a great job of firing us up, and Kiffin is an extremely smart defensive guy. Injuries aren’t an excuse, but they played a part this year. At the beginning of the year, when we were healthy, we played a lot better and made a lot of plays.
JORDAN ROSS – What specifically can the defense do to improve next season?
MATT JOHNSON – Get off the field on 3rd down. We gave up way too many conversions. Gotta make some more plays, get some more turnovers, and get off the field. We don’t want our offense to feel like they have to put up 40 points to win. We want to be the kind of defense where even if the offense only puts up 10 points, we can still win.
JORDAN ROSS – How beneficial is it going up against guys like Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten in practice?
MATT JOHNSON – It’s amazing playing against them every day. They’re great at helping us out on the defensive side. Riding Jason Witten in practice is great. He works with me afterwards and tells me what he’s looking for, and what I can improve on. Tony does the same thing. He tells me if I’m doing a good job at disguising the coverage, or if he’s able to read it. They’re all the best at what they do. Dez is an incredible receiver. Witten, I think, will go down as the best tight end to ever play the game. Tony does so many little things better than anyone else in the league. It’s really beneficial having those guys on the team.
JORDAN ROSS – How much pressure do you feel to prove yourself to Jerry Jones and Coach Garrett this season?
MATT JOHNSON – I don’t like to use the word “pressure”. In the past, I put too much pressure on myself. I’m just going to have fun and do my thing. These guys picked me up for a reason, and I am going to do my best to remind them why the went out and got me.
JORDAN ROSS – Which players did you watch growing up that you tried to model your playing style after?
MATT JOHNSON – John Lynch, Brian Dawkins, Darren Woodson, Ed Reed. I think that Darren Woodson is the best Safety of all time, and that’s not just because I’m a Cowboy. He could go up and get the ball, he could tackle, he was a huge leader. I watch tape of all of those guys.
JORDAN ROSS – What goals have you set for yourself this season?
MATT JOHNSON – Number 1, is to stay healthy and stay on the field. I also want to be a starter. If not, I’ll do my best at whatever they have me do. Special teams, defense. I just want to help the team.
JORDAN ROSS – Last, but not least, what is the best thing about being a Cowboy?
MATT JOHNSON – I’ve always watched the Cowboys. My Dad was always a huge Dallas fan when I was a kid. My first football memory is watching the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving. The best part about it is just wearing that star, and knowing the tradition and what it stands for.
JORDAN ROSS – Is there anything else you want to say to the fans?
MATT JOHNSON – Stick with us. It’s been a rough couple of years. There have been some heartbreaking losses, the way the season ended was tough. But we are going to keep pushing. We’re going to work hard for all of you.
If Johnson can remain healthy for long enough this season, I have a feeling that people will begin to see why the Cowboys have continued to stick with him, and will be reminded of why we drafted him in the first place. His name my not be well-known at this point, but if he lives up to his tremendous potential, he could be a household name by the end of the 2014 season. All I’m saying is, don’t give up on the guy just yet.. You may miss out on something very special.