While Leonard Johnson may not be able to save Carolina’s struggling secondary on his own, the veteran nickel cornerback has brought some needed energy — and some playmaking ability — to a group still looking for an identity after losing All-Pro Josh Norman to free agency this past offseason.
Johnson was stellar in his first game with the Panthers last Sunday with eight tackles, a sack and pass breakup in 30-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
But it was his all-in emotional intensity that teammates said made the biggest impact.
“He brought electricity,” said defensive tackle Kawann Short.
Teammates noticed Johnson’s upbeat personality when he joined the team for training camp — even though he was rehabbing on the side with trainers.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman thought enough of the 5-foot-10 Johnson to sign him as a free agent in July even though he was still working back from a torn Achilles. During rehab, Johnson would wear game pants — rather than just athletic shorts — to practice, a reminder to himself of his desire to get back on the field.
“He’s hungry — and I like that,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said.
Johnson stepped into a secondary that had allowed Matt Ryan and Drew Brees to throw for a combined 968 yards and eight touchdowns in two of the three previous games.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to make an impact Sunday.
“I noticed it right away,” Rivera said. “I was like, ‘OK, he’s getting into it.’ And he was into it. And he was definitely chatty. You could hear him out there. He says some pretty outlandish things in terms of getting after guys and challenging guys. He does bring that energy.”
Sometimes too much energy.
Johnson would have had two sacks on Sunday had he not been flagged for unnecessary roughness when he ripped the quarterback Carson Palmer’s helmet from his head. That cost the Panthers 15 yards — and Johnson a $9,175 fine from the league for an illegal hit.
He apologized to his teammates at the time, but they simply told him to keep playing hard and bring the energy.
He did just that.
“He brought juice,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “Leonard has love for the game and that’s good to have.”
Added safety Kurt Coleman: “Whether he was trying to make a play or trying to hustle to the play, he was full out. Was he perfect? No. But he made a lot of things happen. It was just a great addition to what we strive to be, a team that is running to the ball to make things happen.”
Rivera said the Panthers have been looking for a slot cornerback similar to Captain Munnerlyn, who left to join the Minnesota Vikings as an unrestricted free agent following the 2013 season.
They think they have finally found that replacement in Johnson. He’ll get another shot Sunday on the road vs. the Rams.
“It’s only been one game, but he’s done some really good things,” Rivera said. “You can also tell he was rusty. We just feel if we continue to grow and things get better, he can be a big part of what we want to do on defense.”
NOTES: Left tackle Michael Oher (concussion), center Ryan Kalil (shoulder), linebacker Shaq Thompson (knee), cornerback Daryl Worley (elbow) and defensive tackle Vernon Butler (ankle) did not practice Thursday and their status is uncertain for Sunday’s game against the Rams is uncertain. Kuechly was held out of practice as a precautionary measure with a groin injury, but Rivera said he should be back to work on Friday.