The crowd at Spratt Stadium rose to their feet. It was scorching hot, but Charles finding the end zone was worth standing for.
Just as soon as the crowd rose, Charles hit the one-yard line and was forced sideways. Number 56 was charging hard in Charles’ peripheral.
A former track star and normally able to out-leg any linebacker, Charles surprisingly kept going horizontal. Eventually, he ran out of real estate.
The training camp crowd hardly muttered a word and took a seat.
Defenders don’t get many cheers in training camp. People prefer points. They want the big plays. Standing ovations almost always occur following positive offensive plays.
“They do seem to get a little more claps than we do, especially in those open practices,” Johnson laughed. “It’s an offensive league, so people cater to the offense a little more.”
Maybe so, but gameday brings a much different atmosphere.
Crowds feed off turnovers more than they do points. Sacks make fans erupt. Big hits draw attention to video boards with thousands of eyes hoping to see an instant reply.
Defense is what makes Arrowhead special.
“Big plays on defense can change a game and I think it takes a special person to make big plays consistently,” Johnson said. “I’m working hard at that goal of becoming a special player in this league.”
The Chiefs need DJ to be special in 2011.
After hitting rock bottom in 2009, the linebacker soared to new heights in 2010. It began the first weekend in January when Johnson picked off two passes for touchdowns in the 2009 season finale at Denver. It was his first time finding the end zone off an interception since entering the NFL in 2005.
Those big plays continued into the 2010 campaign where Johnson set career highs in tackles (122), passes defensed (16) and forced fumbles (4). Of course, he found the end zone again on a pick-six vs. Jacksonville that turned the tide on sluggish start.
The Chiefs rallied off 21 unanswered points after Johnson’s interception to cruise past the Jaguars 42-20.
“I want to be categorized as a big play-maker,” Johnson said. “I pride myself in that. I’ve always put the pressure on myself to make the big plays and want to do that consistently to help this team.”
Trailing 14-0 in Friday night’s preseason game against the Rams, Johnson came up big again. Like the picks in Denver and the interception vs. Jacksonville, this one was a potential game-changer.
Reading Rams QB Sam Bradford perfectly, Johnson disguised coverage and dropped into the throwing lane to deliver the type of interception only those with a rare form of God-given athletic ability can deliver.
“That was just a phenomenal play,” Head Coach Todd Haley said. “As I was watching it on tape, I just rewound it, rewound it and rewound it because the reaction, the ability to catch the ball, hang on to it when he hit the ground, not even really having it clean, and even trying to get up…”
Like an ace pitcher taking the hill to stop a losing streak, Johnson’s big play breathed life into a lethargic stadium. The leaping INT stopped the bleeding from St. Louis’ dominating start and put the Chiefs within 10 yards of making the contest a one-score game.
Johnson altered the momentum of an entire game on a single play. It made a lopsided game close again.
“When you can make some plays like that, game-changers, and get a sack and do some things he’s been doing, that’s good stuff,” Haley said. “If we can get him to show up like that throughout the year, that would sure be a good thing for our defense.”
Johnson, along with fellow 2005 draft pick
That tenure, coupled with his big-play ability, has pushed Johnson into natural leadership role on a young Chiefs defense.
“I definitely have a physical and vocal leadership role on this team,” Johnson said. “The verbal part is coming more and more. If you look around the locker room, I’m one of the older guys now. I feel guys look at me for guidance or leadership and I’m glad to be a part of that.”
This season, Johnson has the opportunity to take his career to the next level.
He’s always shown flashes of game-changing potential, but didn’t reveal true play-to-play consistency until last season. Johnson has shown flashes of leadership as well; but he’s never been asked to be the defense’s guiding veteran presence.
This year, Johnson is in a position to do something he hasn’t done before. He wants to become special and, for the first time of his career, in a position to do so.
“He did some really, really good things last year and he did some really good things in training camp but I think he can be even better, and that’s the exciting thing for all of us,” Haley said.