David Johnson is widely considered to be a player whose best years as an NFL running back are behind him. For that reason, and many others, there was a lot of criticism surrounding the trade that landed David Johnson in Houston, unsurprisingly.
David Johnson Breakdown
Unless you have been living under a rock, I am sure you have heard by now that the Texans’ All-Pro wide receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, was part of that deal. Many people are judging David Johnson based on the return that he commanded rather than as a player, and more importantly, a human being. Texans Unfiltered’s very own, James Carlson (@IamYoungairgold), had the chance to sit down with David Johnson via video chat and we were afforded the opportunity to get to know David Johnson as a human being in addition to getting a glimpse into what he believes he brings to the Houston Texans. I am here to break down David Johnson as a football player and what he brings to this football team based on some of the comments he made during this interview. Join me as we delve into some of his most recent film and get a chance to meet your new running back.
Firstly, I would like to highlight some of David Johnson’s pass catching ability. The Texans have grossly underutilized the screen pass in their offense for far too long and with the addition of David Johnson, who joins another great pass catching back in Duke Johnson, it seems that they are finally going to start to make it a major part of their scheme. After all, most great NFL offenses use the screen pass to protection, the Patriots being a prime example.
In this first play, we see David Johnson lined up in the backfield and catching a pass on a delayed screen, a super effective play. This play is especially efficient and effective against man coverage due to the fact that most of the secondary is tied up covering their assignment and there might not necessarily be anyone to pick up Johnson out of the backfield. You can also see his top end speed on this play is still elite, and he glides around the football field. This particular design is something we should look for in this new look Texans offense.
This next play showcases his great route running ability which has made him one of the premier pass catching backs in the league for many years. He has an uncanny ability to get open when running out of the backfield and the hands to match that same ability. This was not an easy catch for a wide receiver to make, let alone a running back. It was another great play design by the Cardinals which the Texans should definitely be copying. It starts with play action to Johnson which makes the run defender bite and run upfield just enough so that Johnson can use a stutter step to easily gain separation and make a tremendous catch. If he is running routes like this in our offense from the backfield, it is going to be really hard to cover.
You will see in this next play that his receiving ability is really not normal for a running back. When you get deeper into his film, you start to realize why Bill O’Brien wanted him so badly. O’Brien is a coach that values versatility and they do not come more versatile than David Johnson. There is nothing special about this play design. He just runs right past the man who was assigned to cover him out of the backfield. David Johnson being a deep threat is something I did not expect to see when I started watching his film. The hands are on full display once again with the marvelous high point of the football. There are so many ways to use David Johnson in this offense it should get all of you very excited.
The final pass catching play I want to highlight is going to showcase his versatility as a pass catcher out of the backfield once again. In this play, you see Johnson come out of the backfield and run a simple, yet effective, crossing route. This is the fourth different route that we have seen him run coming out of the backfield. That type of versatility and receiving ability from a running back adds another dimension to this offense. You also see him make and a man miss and accelerate quickly to pick up a good chunk of yardage. Even in 2019, a down year by his standards that was marred with injury and a dwindling role, he showed what he could do catching the ball and it is something we should look for Tim Kelley to utilize heavily in his offense this upcoming season.
Now that we have seen what David Johnson can do in the pass game, it is time to break down who he is as a runner and what he offers in that facet of football. Throughout free agency and the draft process, much of the fanbase, including me, believed we needed a back who could carry the load and be a power runner much like Carlos Hyde was for the Texans last season. Our only returning rusher, Duke Johnson is a third down back that makes his money catching the football and bouncing outside to gain his yardage, but he cannot be counted on to carry the ball 300 times over the course of a season. On the flip side, David Johnson has had recent injury concerns and it probably would not be wise to put him in that role either. However, David Johnson has shown some nice skills running up the middle in recent years and having him do that 8-10 times a game wouldn’t hurt and would actually create a great rushing combination with Duke Johnson due to his ability to bounce it outside and gain yardage. Pair that with both of their abilities to catch the ball at a high level and you have a pretty complete rushing attack. Here are a few plays to break down David Johnson’s running abilities and how they would help this offense create the complete rushing attack that Houston desperately needs.
The first play I want to highlight is a great design that I hope we implement in the power run game with David Johnson. It features a fullback which is definitely something we should look out for with Bill O’Brien mentioning how pleased he was with the development of Cullen Gillaspia and that we should expect his role to grow next season.This play featured a great man blocking scheme that allowed Johnson to hit a hole and show off some of his cutting ability. The cut was elite and allowed him to burst through the hole his line created. He finishes the run strong with a spin move that ends up getting him the first down, making it a very productive run. Like I alluded to earlier, if David Johnson can do this 8-10 times a game so that we can establish a power run game, it will go a long way in making this offense a complete attack.
This next play features more of the same thing in terms of play design and blocking scheme, however we get to see a more physical run from Johnson on this one. This clip being a run to the left side that sees Johnson running straight through a hole and breaking a tackle while finishing the run by putting his head down and gaining the yardage he needs for a first down once again. I think there is a narrative that has been floating around that David Johnson is just a pass catching back in this day and age, but I am here to show you through video evidence that he can still be effective in power run situations. Keep in mind, these are all man blocking schemes, which Johnson voiced in the interview is not his preferred scheme. I will touch more on that in the coming plays.
I wanted to showcase David Johnson’s ability to bounce it outside, a skill that makes him a complete back, with this next play. You can see that his speed and ability to bring the ball outside have not really been affected by his injury history. He still has all the ability in the world to take the ball outside and turn the corner against faster players, such as the cornerback he outruns in this clip. There has been a narrative that David Johnson has never been able to recapture his All-Pro 2016 season because of the injuries he sustained. That does not appear to be the case when you watch his film. He still looks like he is able to make all the cuts he needs to, while still possessing that top end speed needed to get around the faster skill players. The problem seems to lie in the man blocking scheme that his new coach, Steve Wilks, was running when he arrived to the team in 2018. That trend continued when Kliff Kingsbury arrived in 2019 and ran a similar scheme to Wilks, which did not play to Johnson’s strengths.
This next play is really going to showcase David Johnson at his absolute best. I went all the way back to his 2016 film to get this clip and it gives us a blueprint of how Johnson should be used. This was, of course, when Bruce Arians was still the coach and a zone blocking scheme was implemented into the offense which David Johnson thrived in. He said himself in the interview with James that he prefers a zone blocking scheme as it allows him to pick his holes and shoot upfield considering that he does describe himself as a patient runner. He even correlates this to his subpar 2019 season by stating that he caught himself trying to be too patient. He was waiting for holes to open that weren’t really there in a man blocking scheme. You can see in this play that Johnson surveys the field and even side steps before he decides to burst through a hole for a sizable gain. It showcases his field vision and gives us an insight into how the Texans should use Johnson to get the best out of him as a power runner.
In the following clip, you can see the Texans run a very similar play. They are using the pull blocker as the lead guy for Carlos Hyde who is very patient in picking his hole, just like Johnson was in the previous play. Carlos Hyde was super successful on plays like this in 2019, and zone blocking was the main blocking scheme that the Texans utilized last year, both for Hyde and Duke Johnson. Of course, they did implement their fair share of man blocking to open up holes between the tackles because Hyde was a traditional power back, but they can go away from that completely with David Johnson if they want to. There are many worse things than implementing zone blocking on almost every play and letting David Johnson be the patient runner that he wants to be resulting in a picking apart of the opponent’s run defense. Look for plays like this to be commonplace in next year’s offense. It makes both of our featured running backs way harder to stop.
I want to highlight one more play that is a design the Texans should definitely look to use when trying to get the most out of David Johnson. I already demonstrated that he still has the ability to bounce it outside and turn the corner fast enough to outrun skill players. In this play, you see another zone blocking scheme that results in a gaping hole for Johnson to run through before he makes the cut that ultimately sets him free to score. The hole was set up by elite zone blocking that allows Johnson to recognize it and burst through. On top of that, you see several blockers running with Johnson, blocking anyone they can, to ensure he gets into the endzone. This is a play that definitely should be in the playbook for next season. It gives Johnson another way to be effective in this offense while still playing to his strengths.
Despite the obvious criticism of the deal that landed him in Houston, David Johnson has a lot to offer to this football team. He has a variety of ways to be effective in this offense such as running a diverse set of routes out of the backfield and fitting the blocking scheme the Texans want to run to a tee. It is easy to see why he was coveted by Bill O’Brien and why he gave up so much to go get him. I think O’Brien has some big plans for Johnson in this offense and it will be interesting to see how he is used and to what extent. Overall, I believe that there is a lot to be excited about with the addition of Johnson. If you think about all the dimensions that this offense has now, it will be easy to share my excitement. You have David and Duke Johnson running routes out of the backfield, Cobb and the tight ends getting open in the slot, while Will Fuller, Brandin Cooks, and Kenny Stills, all have the ability to take the top off of the defense at any given moment. When the offense is clicking, it is going to be hard to cover. Bill O’Brien has built a complete offense to surround his franchise quarterback with and David Johnson is going to be a vital piece to it.