Before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Thursday night game at Minnesota, undrafted rookie cornerback Leonard Johnson knew he was about to play the most important game of his young career. Fortunately, he had somebody nearby to boost his confidence with an ongoing pep talk during the days leading up to that prime-time affair.
That "somebody" shares a locker with Johnson at One Buc Place…yes, the former Iowa State star served as his own inspiration last week. He doesn't have a mirror in his locker, Stuart Smalley-style, but he does believe in visualizing what he wants to become a reality.
"All week I was telling myself – I do a lot of 'self-talking' – that the thing for me is, the bigger the stage, the bigger I perform," said Johnson. "I was telling myself that all week, knowing that if I took care of everything in practice that I would feel confident and I would go out and perform.
"That's the kind of approach I took, and it's the kind of approach I take when opportunities like that present themselves."
The opportunity in front of Johnson on Thursday night was the primary nickel back job, with a twist. The Bucs wanted to use starting right cornerback Eric Wright in the slot in nickel packages to keep him closer to Percy Harvin, which means Johnson was essentially the outside corner on about 40% of the game's snaps. Oh, and the contest was the Buccaneers' first one to go to a national audience in 2012.
All Johnson did with that opportunity was contribute two solo tackles, one interception, one other play that looked suspiciously like an interception and three passes defensed. He helped hold Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder to 229 passing yards, much of that on two garbage-time drives late in the fourth quarter, and just 54.3% passing.
"I just think he competed," said Head Coach Greg Schiano of his rookie DB. "The stage doesn't get a lot bigger in the regular season than a nationally-televised game against a team that's doing well offensively, and it wasn't too big for him. He competed and he made some plays. He had … two really big-time plays and then other ones that go unnoticed. You know, the ones that he does his job. At the cornerback position, you do your job the whole night and no one notices. I thought he did well in those competitive situations."
Johnson said he didn't specifically visualize getting the interception that ended Minnesota's last drive, or grabbing another pass near the sideline just before halftime that was ruled incomplete, but he did think "something big" would happen.
"I just went out and had fun," he said. "I tried to do everything I was asked to do. Being able to start in the nickel and the dime was something I was looking forward to doing all week. I didn't put too much pressure on myself about going out there with the first team. I just tried to let it all hang out and be natural.
"When I was playing in college, my whole thing was just, do my job. When plays come, make the play presented to me. Never did I want to go out and force anything, just because I was going to be playing with the first team.
Johnson may get another significant opportunity to prove himself next Sunday in Oakland. Wright is dealing with an Achilles tendon ailment suffered in Minnesota, and while Schiano believes some extra rest could get Wright back in the mix, it's too early to be sure. With E.J. Biggers already starting at left cornerback in place of Aqib Talib, Johnson could be the choice to step up into the starting 11 if Wright is unavailable.
"I'm just taking it one day at a time," said Johnson. "The whole Eric Wright situation will handle itself. Right now, I'm just trying to focus on getting better, the things that I can do so I can be prepared, so that if anything was to happen I won't be shocked when the time comes."
The Bucs will obviously have more confidence in putting Johnson in an important role after he answered the call so impressively in Minnesota. As for the rookie who is suddenly getting a chance to turn his visualizations into reality, he says the key is learning to give it his all on every snap.
"Just compete on every play," he said. "A lot of the time you're out there, fatigue kicks in and then you have a tendency to take a play off or not sprint to the ball. I think the biggest thing is, no matter what's going on, just continue to compete and stay after it."