Since the day he joined the Chicago Bears a little more than two years ago, Jaylon Johnson has emphasized the biggest prerequisite for top-tier cornerbacks.
“Have a short memory,” he said again Tuesday.
So perhaps it was apropos that when Johnson was asked about making notable individual growth during a 2021 season full of failure by the Bears defense, he couldn’t remember the pronounced struggles.
“What made our pass defense not very good?” Johnson asked with genuine curiosity. “It’s easy to say we weren’t good. But I want to know the numbers.”
Well, for starters, Bears opponents posted a 103.3 passer rating, the highest allowed by any NFL defense.
Only the Washington Football Team and Indianapolis Colts allowed more touchdown passes than the 31 the Bears gave up.
The Bears also finished in the bottom five in interceptions (eight) and yards allowed per pass attempt (7.6) despite allowing only 191.6 passing yards per game.
So what was that experience like for Johnson, emerging as a reliable cover corner on a defense that had its issues?
“I mean, I felt like I was struggling too,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. We just have to be on one page. I feel like a lot of things (last season) were more mental than physical.”
Now its on to the future and into the latest phase of the Bears’ massive reboot, which is continuing with the first week of organized team activities in Lake Forest. Johnson took the practice field Tuesday with a lot of new faces around him. He has a new head coach in Matt Eberflus, a new defensive coordinator in Alan Williams and a new defensive backs coach in James Rowe.
The Bears also used last month’s draft to make upgrades to their secondary, adding cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker with second-round selections. Both rookies project to be Week 1 starters.
Johnson is observant enough to realize there’s a whole lot of starting over again happening at Halas Hall — even for established veterans.
“It’s a complete reset,” he said. “Everything I’ve done in the past with the other coaches, with the other staff, it really doesn’t mean anything.
“I mean, the film is not going to lie to you. But at the end of the day, they want me to show them what I can do in person.”
So what can Johnson teach the new coaching staff in the next month during OTAs and minicamp?
“It just comes down to work ethic,” he said. “It’s just earning that respect as a hard worker and doing extra. I mean, right now it’s not too much about production. It’s really about knowing your assignment and playing hard.”
Johnson was impressive through large stretches of 2021, raising his hand to shadow the opponent’s top receiver when necessary and showing he’s more than capable of growing into an NFL standout. His interception total (one) through two seasons leaves something to be desired, but he earned respect throughout the locker room last year with his competitive edge, to-the-point voice and tone-setting approach to practices and games.
On multiple occasions, former Bears safety Tashaun Gipson endorsed Johnson as an emerging star with the potential to become a top-five cornerback in the league. But at least for now, Eberflus is challenging Johnson to prove himself every day.
After saying Tuesday that Gordon has been “lighting it up” in practice this week, Eberflus called Johnson “a work in progress,” emphasizing that the third-year cornerback has plenty to work on.
When pressed for specifics, Eberflus stressed the need to see Johnson play with his own eyes more frequently.
“I want to see him in person,” Eberflus said. “I’ve got to have time on task. So I don’t really know how to answer that question right now. … I’ve got to see the guy cover. I’ve got to see how he takes his angles, how he plays the ball. I’ve got to see all those things before we’re going to start diving into the details of that and coaching him.”
Johnson noted vast differences in the system Eberflus and Williams are installing from the ones he played in under coordinators Chuck Pagano and Sean Desai during his first two seasons. For starters, in the Bears’ new scheme, cornerbacks will have their eyes on the quarterback more often while asked to master the nuances of zone coverages.
But after feeling a breakthrough in Year 2 with his comfort level and confidence, Johnson feels certain he can cross the necessary bridges quickly.
“I feel as confident as ever,” he said. “I don’t feel like there’s anything I can’t do.”
He also acknowledged the enthusiasm he felt three weeks ago when the Bears used their top two draft picks to add to the secondary.
“(I was) excited just to have some high-level guys come in and be able to contribute,” Johnson said. “They’re ballhawks. They’re ball hungry. That’s definitely a good thing, knowing they’re aggressive.”
To that last point, Johnson expressed a the-sooner-the-better attitude toward getting Gordon and Brisker on the field and locked in with the starters.
“I’d throw ‘em in the fire if you’re asking me,” he said. “I mean, they’re our first two draft picks. I feel like we’ve got to see what they can do right now. And then we can know what the attitude and what the vibe is heading into camp.
“If I was the coach, I wouldn’t ease them into it. I would throw them out there.”
As the Bears continue their transition, they need Johnson to play a prominent role and continue to push himself. That process must accelerate in May and into June so that Johnson can earn the coaching staff’s full trust before training camp.
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This story was originally published May 17, 2022 4:11 PM.