'You're giving me the layup': Hard-hitting Browns John Johnson III, Troy Hill relish expanded roles
While receiver Odell Beckham Jr. left Cleveland and took his talents to the Los Angeles Rams, two hard-hitting Browns defenders who reversed that journey will be waiting if the teams meet in the Super Bowl.
In a 41-16 road victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson recorded his second interception of the season and forced a fumble for the takeaway-starved Browns, setting up two field goals. He also contributed three solo tackles and a pass breakup.
Hill, used as a blitzer, notched two sacks, seven solo tackles, two for losses, and three quarterback hits.
The defense’s aggressiveness was ignited by cornerback Denzel Ward’s 99-yard pick-six on the Bengals’ first possession, and Johnson and Hill quickly picked up on the vibe.
“Man, he went out there and he balled. I told him on the sideline, ‘I haven’t seen you hit nobody like that in a long time,’” Hill said of Johnson Monday. “He came out there and got in that weight room and he’s out here hitting people. I was excited to see his success and it was a big energy boost for us. I think it started with Denzel’s pick and it just flowed after that. It was a great game for him.”
Hill, 30, played five of his previous six seasons with the Rams, the last four with Johnson, 25. Johnson was the Browns’ prized free-agent acquisition, signing a three-year, $33.75 million contract with $24 million guaranteed. Hill received a two-year, $9 million deal with $4.5 million guaranteed.
With safeties Grant Delpit and Ronnie Harrison Jr. factored into the mix, Woods said the Browns made some adjustments the past two weeks to try to get Johnson more involved and it is paying off. Johnson's interception against the Bengals was his second in the last three games.
“John in the last couple of weeks has made a big impact on what we have been able to do defensively,” Woods said Thursday. “I think you see where his game is. He is playing good in the run game. He is playing good in the pass game. He is taking away the ball. He is creating takeaways for us. That is what we envisioned when we got him.”
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Johnson played the dime position with the Rams, but Woods is not using him that way, and Johnson needed time to make the adjustment. In the revamped plan, Johnson could be anywhere.
Asked what has changed recently, Johnson said, “Sometimes I am to the field. Sometimes I am to the boundary. Sometimes I am with the nickel. Sometimes I am away from the nickel. Sometimes I am rotated down. In certain disguises, we want to have gray alignments to throw the quarterback off.
“They feel like sometimes I am better off in that position because [opponents] don’t know where I am going to play. Ronnie is usually down so if you put me in a gray alignment, it is hard to tell if I am going to be down or deep. Usually, they expect me to be deep. There are a whole bunch of different ways to do it, but just moving pieces.”
Taking advantage of the three’s versatility to move around is making Johnson more effective, he said.
“When plays present themselves, we all have to cash in. Lately, I have been doing it,” Johnson said Thursday. “We just want to keep it moving. Anywhere they place us, we just have to find a way to make plays, and that is what we’ve been doing.”
While Johnson enjoys the variety of his new role, Hill is thrilled he’s being given more chances to blitz.
A Youngstown native who moved to California at age 15 and attended the University of Oregon, Hill said he could probably count his sacks since high school on one hand. He had none in four seasons at Oregon. His two against the Bengals gave him three in the NFL, one in 2019 with the Rams.
“I don’t think I ever had no sacks. Maybe one time back in high school,” said Hill, who attended St. Bonaventure High School in Ventura, California.
“For me, it’s like a layup, you’re giving me the layup, ‘Go get the money right there. Go sack the quarterback.’ It’s always fun when I get the chance to blitz. My whole career I really was playing corner, so I never got the opportunity to blitz like that. It’s new and it’s exciting for me. My eyes light up when I get that opportunity.”
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Browns coach Kevin Stefanski values Hill's competitiveness.
"He is very, very competitive and very, very tough. I enjoy being around him, and I think his teammates enjoy being around him," Stefanski said Monday. "He just brings an edge to that group.”
Making tough, sure tackles is nothing new for Hill. He developed that skill as a kid in Youngstown, playing outside in the yard with his friends.
“I take pride in just, I don’t want to be a weak link out there. I ain’t scared to get dirty and put my head in there,” Hill said. “I feel like it just comes from my upbringing. When I was growing up in Youngstown, that was one of the things we did, made sure we were out there tackling for sure.
"There really wasn’t too much passing going on, especially in the wintertime. I’ve carried it throughout my whole career, I’ve always been a tackler and not afraid of going up there and hitting the biggest man.”
That included his brother, two years older.
“At the time he was a four-star recruit, big, he was a defensive end and back then I was probably like a hundred pounds soaking wet,” said Hill, now 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. “I was always challenged in that aspect, but I didn’t let it stop me.
“He used to try to stiff-arm me and do all that, so I had to find a way to get him down. I wasn’t just going to keep getting stiff-armed every time we’d go out there and play in the front yard.”
Against the Bengals, two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Myles Garrett saw Hill and Johnson coming into their own in the Browns defensive scheme.
"They both came in pretty handy," Garrett said Friday. "Troy Hill almost had three sacks, got one taken away from him by [linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.]. JJ’s just flying around the field. You love to see it when a guy’s comfortable in his role and the scheme and he’s just happy to be out there making plays.
"That's how we want all of us to be. We want everybody to be in a position that suits them and they’re able to go out and be the football player we imagined. I think everyone’s falling into place right now."
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Browns at www.beaconjournal.com/browns. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.