ARLINGTON -- Lonnie Johnson Jr. reacted instinctively, alertly snagging the football out of the air when cornerback Tremon Smith deflected the pass.
From there, the Texans' third-year safety was off to the races after intercepting Dallas Cowboys quarterback Ben DiNucci. Johnson sprinted untouched, traveling 53 yards up the sideline for the touchdownSaturday nightduring a preseason game at AT&T Stadium.
This marked the first interception of Johnson's NFL career, and he celebrated by hurling the football into the wall behind the end zone.
“Just seeing the way the quarterback was leaning that way, just following the ball,” Johnson said. “See ball, get ball. Take the ball and then the rest was history, get to the end zone.”
A physically gifted former second-round draft pick from Kentucky who's the largest defensive back on the Texans' roster, Johnson has displayed increased confidence and awareness during training camp practices. He has intercepted multiple passes during practice sessions.
At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds with 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash, Johnson has always had the requisite size and athleticism. Now that he's become more comfortable at the safety position since making the transition from cornerback, he looks much more confident and instinctive.
Johnson is determined to continue growing as a player under new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith.
“My skills with corner is helping me a lot at safety,” Johnson said. “Being able to guard people. Being able to recognize routes quicker. Just pretty much knowing where the quarterback wants to go with the ball. And then playing safety, I get to use my vision as much as possible.”
Johnson was involved in a major collision with safety Jonathan Owens earlier in the game, but he returned to the action to intercept the pass.
“That’s for the medical team to let y’all know what’s going on withme, I’m not going to talk about that, man,” Johnson said. “I just came back out there,try to finish the game and help my team get this win. That’s my job,man. I can’t let them boys down."
When told he looked healthy on the interception, Johnson replied: “Yeah man, I’m good.”
Since former Texans general manager Brian Gaine drafted Johnson, he’s battled consistency issues while also flashing plenty of potential.
Signed to a four-year, $5.214 million contract that includes $3.039 million guaranteed with a $1.812 million signing bonus, Johnson is competing with returning starter Eric Murray for the right to play next to Justin Reid.
"Lovie harps on that, just getting takeaways in general,” Johnson said. “But my skillswith corner is helping me a lot with safety, being able to guardpeople, being able to recognize routes quicker. Just pretty muchknowing where the quarterback wants to go with the ball. And thenplaying safety, I get to use my vision as much as possible. So, it’sjust go get the ball at the end of the day."
Johnson played in every game last season with five starts and had a career-high 76 tackles, one for a loss, with three quarterback pressures. As a rookie, Johnson played in 14 games with seven starts and recorded 41 tackles with seven passes defended and no interceptions.
Johnson is liking his fit in new defensive coordinator Lovie Smith’s 4-3 defense. He’s thinking fast and playing faster.
"Less thinking for me, it’s more reacting,” Johnson said. “Just going out there playing. I was more
focused mentally this offseason than physically, just working mymental part of the game. That’s what’s helping me a lot, as you cansee in camp. It’s just starting to translate and translate over into the games."
Safety, because of his physical style, appears to be the best fit for Johnson.
During a win over the New England Patriots last season, Johnson had two quarterback hits on Cam Newton. That included one clutch pressure with Reid that forced Newton to throw incomplete on fourth down late in the fourth quarter to clinch a 27-20 victory.
“In the NFL, it’s hard because they don’t let you touch receivers much anymore because of the rules,” said Jeff Sims, Johnson’s junior college coach at Garden City. “Lonnie was taught by us to be a physical corner. He could maul you at the line of scrimmage. He’s long. He would beat you up. He would disrupt the timing. Safety is a great position for Lonnie.”
Playing for safeties coach Greg Jackson has given Johnson a different perspective on how to play the game. Jackson played safety in the NFL for a dozen seasons, earning a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants and intercepted 32 career passes.
“Well, the first thing I saw was the length, how tall, how long he was,” Jackson said. “I think he’s done a tremendous job at moving to the safety position and start to understand how to take the proper angles as a safety. It’s a little bit different playing the corner position because you’re just playing everything from outside in. With him, it’s more of the just repetition for him and being consistent at what he does. He’s a really good player.”
The trust that Johnson and Jackson are building could generate dividends for a Texans defense in flux.
“He’s been coaching for a long time, so him coming with that experience and helping a young safety like myself, it’s meant a lot,” Johnson said. “He's been helping me with my angles, telling me where I need to be and helping me break down the film, something I've never really had before. He's a big help.”
Johnson switched his jersey number from No. 32 to No. 1. Johnson hopes it’s symbolic and is embracing the pressure that goes with wearing that number in a revamped defense. The Texans had just two interceptions last season by defensive backs.
“Definitely, man, this whole defense, our job is to fly around the ball and get the ball,” Johnson said. “That's what we going to do, man. We going to get takeaways for our offense, get the ball to whoever is back there as much as possible.”
Johnson looked very fast on his touchdown. No one was catching him.
And Johnson delivered a message to EA Sports' Madden team, which rated him as an 89 with 91 acceleration out of a possible high score of 99 for those video game attributes.
"Hey, tell Madden to stop playing with my speed," Johnson said late Saturday night as he headed back to the locker room following his press conference.
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 seasons, including the Texans, Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars. He has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128.