Luke Inman contributed to this story.
Just over two months ago at Vikings training camp, rookie seventh-round pick Bisi Johnson was getting lumped in with other rookie receivers who head coach Mike Zimmer said needed to “get their rear end in gear.”
Johnson responded to Zimmer’s message by turning in a strong preseason, which he leveraged into a 53-man roster spot.
Seven weeks into the regular season — after injuries to Josh Doctson, Chad Beebe and most recently Adam Thielen — Johnson is the team’s temporary WR2.
Johnson first popped up in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears late in the fourth quarter with four grabs (who says garbage time isn’t important?). Against the New York Giants a week later he made four catches during the meaningful portion of the game as Minnesota diversified the use of its skill players. And after Thielen’s departure in the first quarter last Sunday with a hamstring injury, Johnson took his place against the Lions and became an integral part of Minnesota’s 500-plus-yard offensive day.
“That’s how football is,” said Johnson. “Somebody goes down and everybody else has to step up. Obviously that’s what we did.”
The Vikings wasted no time trying to incorporate the young receiver, showing their faith in him immediately with a play-action shot downfield on the first play of the drive following Thielen’s injury, but it fell incomplete as Cousins was hurried by pressure up the middle.
Later that drive, however, the Vikings targeted Johnson on four consecutive throws in the red zone. On the first, Johnson drew a holding call as he tried to turn upfield against Justin Coleman. Two passes later he was interfered with again by Coleman as he tried to change directions while Cousins scrambled. That penalty set the Vikings up on the 1-yard line, where Johnson finally cashed in his first career touchdown. It was a well-devised play where the Lions safeties bit on play-action and Johnson crossed behind the shield of his offensive line into the flat. Of Johnson’s four straight targets, three of them came on crossing patterns.
Take another look from the alternate angle at Johnson’s diving grab.
Getting four red zone targets on the first drive sans Thielen established Johnson as a threat to be respected and kept the Lions from giving Stefon Diggs all of their defensive attention. Plus, the Vikings stayed out of dangerous third and longs and ran the ball uber-effectively to keep the Lions’ secondary honest.
“It felt really good,” Johnson said of his instant involvement. “That just shows how much confidence the coaches have in me and how much confidence Kirk obviously has in me. I can go out there and make plays all the time. That’s what I’m here for.”
On 2nd and 8 later in the second quarter, Johnson caught another crosser over the middle. Tight end Kyle Rudolph occupied the safety to keep Johnson from being doubled, and the rookie receiver simply beat Rashaan Melvin one-on-one. Not a bad Thielen impression.
“He was running plays that I had ran all week in practice,” Thielen said, “but he was running them successfully, getting open, making plays downfield and ultimately helping this offense move the ball and help this team win, which is really impressive for a rookie who doesn’t have a lot of experience.”
The Vikings kept Johnson in a stack formation several times to keep the Lions’ coverage off balance. On Johnson’s 19-yard catch in the third quarter, Johnson lined up just behind Irv Smith Jr.’s right shoulder. Smith ran a short curl while Laquon Treadwell ran a vertical route with a double move to clear out the middle of the field for Johnson. The rookie set up Melvin with a subtle lean to the sideline and snared the first-down grab.
“The first thing when they’re young guys is do they know what to do, are they getting to the right depths, are they running the right reads off the coverages?” Zimmer said Tuesday. “The next part is how many places can you play, which he was able to play a lot of different spots. He’s still continued to move forward as far as the details of the route running … learning how to set guys up more when they’re going different ways.”
The Vikings used both Diggs and Johnson in the slot to make up for Thielen’s usual allotment — 11 snaps for Diggs, 18 for Johnson. Cousins targeted the rookie on a 3rd and 7 out of the slot in the third quarter, but Johnson didn’t get turned around in time out of his break. But Johnson ran a similar pattern later that quarter out of a stack with Diggs and reeled in a 10-yard grab in front of an onlooking Thielen.
Bottom line for Johnson: He made three catches for double-digit yardage, a fourth catch for a touchdown and drew two penalties in the red zone. Not a bad breakout game for a receiver that was thrown into a major role unexpectedly.
With Thielen absent from the Vikings’ practice on Tuesday, signs point toward Johnson playing a big part again versus Washington on Thursday.
“You don’t really need any sob story or extra pats on the back,” said Diggs. “That’s why I say he’s a professional. He handles his business.”
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