Atlanta's young defense took a huge leap forward during the 2016 season. As our good friend Aaron Freeman might say, the defense is really starting to come together. The back seven looks set for the 2017 season with Deion Jones, Keanu Neal, De'Vondre Campbell, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole all playing a major role down the stretch for the Falcons' defense. One area that needs to be remodeled is the defensive line.
Grady Jarrett and Vic Beasley are nice pieces along the defensive line, but they need another running mate. Derrick Shelby played well in nickel packages before he tore his Achilles against Seattle, but it's unknown how well he's going to rebound in 2017. If the Falcons decide to look towards the draft for an interior player, Iowa's Jaleel Johnson would be a great fit on the interior with Grady Jarrett and Ra'Shede Hageman.
What separates Jaleel Johnson from some of the other defensive tackles in this year's class is his attention to detail and awareness deciphering blocking schemes. A play that he doesn't make versus Wisconsin is an excellent signifier of that.
Jaleel is lined as the three technique to the boundary side. Wisconsin is running a center fold on the interior (also known as a Playboy block, get it centerfold?) where the right guard, Jaleel Johnson's visual key, goes to the second level and the center blocks back towards the three technique.
Jaleel Johnson reads this perfectly and executes a beautiful wrong arm on the center blocking back on him. This move is executed so quickly and efficiently that it forces Corey Clement to bounce the ball to the edge where he ultimately picks up the first down. I broke down this play further with Matt Waldman and reviewed it on a video I made a few weeks ago.
One of the most impressive areas of Johnson's game is his ability to generate power and dominate interior offensive linemen with his bull rush. He forklifts the guard with one arm on his way to the quarterback.
His lower body explosion serves him well as the "smasher" on twist games. On twists, the "smasher" needs to clear the way for the "scraper" coming around behind him by smashing into the offensive linemen to create a hole in the middle of the line of scrimmage.
This is the very next play after the sack. He unloads into the center, knocks him on the ground, and then slams the quarterback into the dirt. His combination of violence, explosion, and awareness of the ball combined to create a nightmare situation for Wisconsin's quarterback.
While Johnson is a strong player, he does have some issues taking on double teams which is more due to his technique than any physical limitation.
An easy way to think about defensive line play is to imagine that the defensive lineman is a puppet. When he's stringing together moves rushing the passer or playing fits versus the run, his hands and feet need to be on the same page. When the right arm moves, so does the right leg. When the left arm moves, the left leg moves.
Normally Jaleel Johnson is fantastic with his movement and fits along the line of scrimmage, but versus double teams he'll struggle a bit, particularly from the one technique.
His initial movement to take on the visual key, the center in this case, is fine. For some reason when the guard comes over to initiate the double team, he never takes the second step in an attempt to drive through the center. When he gets in an uncomfortable situation he spins against the double team, which is horrendous gap discipline on his part. He opens a huge hole in the middle of the line of scrimmage for the running back to run through.
This is a repeated issue for him, but he definitely has the physical requirements to take on double teams; it should be a coachable issue for him.
When teams single block him versus the run, he can be flat out dominant at times. He played a huge part in Iowa's upset over Michigan during the regular season.
Iowa has their defensive tackles running a slant in the opposite direction of Iowa State's blocking scheme. This is a fantastic job by Jaleel Johnson to adjust his slant technique on the move as the offensive line goes in the opposite direction. Instead of being hyper-aggressive an flying up the field he redirects, holds the point of attack against the right guard, and swallows up the running back at the line of scrimmage.
Maintaining proper depth along the line of scrimmage versus the run isn't always the most natural plan of action in a fast paced, violent game. Johnson did a great job of reading his keys, staying square and patient, and finishing off the play.
At the Senior Bowl he didn't dominate one on one drills, but he had a great week of work in the team drills. Johnson is a polished, athletic player who is (in my opinion) one of the top 15 players in the draft. It's hard to get a good feel for his draft stock right now; it should be a bit clearer after the combine.
A young defensive line core of Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, and Jaleel Johnson? Sign me up. If he's there at pick number 31, he'd be a fantastic pick up for the Falcons.