Devin Bush and Myles Jack will get all the attention for the Steelers linebackers in 2022. That attention will be magnified with Brian Flores working closely with the linebackers. But behind the two projected starter is Buddy Johnson, a second-year linebacker from Texas A&M who only played six defensive snaps last season after being selected in the fourth round.
His 6-foot, 240 lbs. frame makes him a thicker player than Bush or Jack, and a change of pace. His 4.58 time in the 40-yard dash in last year’s NFL Scouting Combine was solid, but his 38.5-inch vertical jump and 128-inch broad jump showed explosiveness in his potential.
That potential had to be honed last season. Johnson now feels his time learning from other veterans has him in a different place than he was last year. During Steelers minicamp, he spoke with Pittsburgh Sports Now about his progress.
“It feels good,” Johnson said from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex’s practice locker room. “Getting that offseason for me, was really great. I got to see how guys handle themselves, treat their bodies and how they move to get ready for the season. That helped me learn and see how they roll. It was a big offseason for me.”
Last year Johnson fought to fit in on special teams. This year he’s more prepared to fit into the defensive scheme the Steelers like to run.
“Take care of my body,” Johnson said. “I learned from the older guys about the playbook. I came from a 4-2 nickel defense to jump into a 3-4 defense, it’s a lot different for me. The different run gaps work differently so I’ve learned from guys about that and am more prepared.”
Johnson was a consistent starter for the Aggies over his last two seasons. He built his reputation on being a responsible leader for the defense who could account for schematic shifts and detailed assignments. That wasn’t something he could do much of last season while learning the Steelers’ defense.
“Things are starting to come together,” Johnson said. “Things make more sense, but that’s only because I’ve learned the defense more. I took the time to study. I like to know what guys are doing around me. It’s a lot of different moving parts to the defense. If you can know where your teammates are doing it helps you get your job done.”
One of the players Johnson has learned the most from has been Bush. Even though he struggled in 2021, Bush’s experience and knowledge of the game has been a resource Johnson has considered an asset.
“I tell him all the time, he’s a dog,” Johnson said of Bush. “He’s a baller. He just has to go out and show it. I feel like I’m behind a great player. I just come in every day to work and learn from him. I let him teach me to be the best version of me. He’s a great teammate and a great player. Coach will get that out of us.”
Bush still must develop his reputation in the NFL, but Jack is an experienced veteran who Johnson wants to lean on even more for tips.
“He’s a great player,” Johnson said of Jack. “He’s really explosive. I think he’s a great tackler. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s like 7 years in the league now, so I’ll ask him what keeps him in the league so long. He tells me things I can do and has already given me tools to help.”
But of course, the new face to the Steelers that Johnson wants to learn the most from is Brian Flores.
“Coach Flores is a great coach,” Johnson said. “He demands a lot out of us and he brings a lot out of us. That’s what we need at the linebacker position. We have a lot of talent. We just need to get it out there.”
Nick Farabaugh wrote about Flores’ impact on the entire team during minicamp with descriptions of the former Dolphins head coach ranging from being a “bulldog” to “military,” and “great,” among others.
“He does a great job of explaining to get his point across,” Johnson said of Flores. “He gets guys on the same page. Coach Flo used to be a head coach. He sees things differently; he knows how to see things as an offensive coach and as a defensive coach. When he was a head coach he talked to QBs, so he knows how QBs think like and gives us pointers on their perspective. That helps a lot.”
Johnson will get to show Flores how comfortable he’s become in the Steelers’ defense soon. Practices without pads only so much and Johnson’s true value will only be shown when he gets a chance to hit. That’s a trait he shares with DeMarvin Leal, the Steelers’ rookie defensive lineman selected in the third round. Leal made the fifth former Aggies player on the Steelers roster with Johnson, Dan Moore Jr., Jace Sternberger and Tyree Johnson.
“Just shows that coach T has a lot of respect for coach (Jimbo) Fisher,” Johnson said. “Coach Fisher runs a great program. He’s very tough. We put out a lot of great players. I just hope to be one.”
Before Johnson gets a chance to be a great player, he has to be a good one. If he can become a reliable backup for Bush and Jack this season, it would go a long way to getting the complete career he wants.