LAKE FOREST – Jaylon Johnson heard someone calling his name as he was warming up prior to last week’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
He turned and saw two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward. The former Packer and Charger who signed with the Raiders over the offseason made a point to pull Johnson aside before the game.
“We just had a little small conversation, but I would’ve never thought he knew [me] or would’ve watched my tape,” Johnson said. “And he was saying that he was a fan of my game and just to keep progressing, keep pushing, keep doing what I was doing.”
Johnson is earning recognition. When it comes from his peers, it has to mean a lot.
The 22-year-old, second-year pro has taken on a starring role for the Bears defense in 2021. When the team released former All-Pro Kyle Fuller, they were essentially handing the cornerback mantle to Johnson.
Through five games, he has carried the torch well. According to advanced stats at Pro Football Reference, Johnson ranks 13th among more than 250 qualified defenders in pass rating allowed when targeted.
Johnson is allowing a 51.6 passer rating when opponents target him. Johnson has six passes defended and one interception on the season to go along with 13 total tackles.
This week’s test will be among the biggest. The Bears will have to figure out how to stop Green Bay Packers receiver Davante Adams, who leads the NFL in receptions (42) and receiving yards (579). First place in the NFC North is on the line between the Bears (3-2) and Packers (4-1).
“Everybody is trying to play the same way against [Adams] and everybody has the same result,” Johnson said. “So it’s really about finding a switch-up, finding not even his weaknesses, but what works best against him. So I mean, we’re going to see.”
In Week 3, Johnson kept close tabs on Cleveland Browns star receiver Odell Beckham Jr., whether he was lined up outside or in the slot. Johnson said he always wants to cover a team’s best defender.
This wasn’t something the Bears did much with Fuller. But prevailing wisdom suggests that if Johnson did it against Beckham, he might do it against Adams this week.
“I don’t say it has an impact on my mentality,” Johnson said about having such an assignment. “My mentality every game is to dominate, to lock up and don’t give any catches up. So my mentality is no different.”
Whether Johnson defends Adams or not, Sunday’s game might come down to who Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants to pick on.
Both Johnson and fellow second-year cornerback Kindle Vildor said it can be a little bit demoralizing watching Rodgers make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. It can sometimes feel like Rodgers knows exactly what coverage the defense is in.
“You might show him something, but he already knows you’re not in it,” Vildor said. “So [it’s about] just playing that mind game with him and making sure we’re all on the same page.”
Rodgers will look for mismatches. In their first meeting last season, the Packers found ways to match up Adams against Bears linebackers. That is a situation the Bears want to avoid this time around.
Johnson blanketing Adams would be one way to do so. For a cornerback who is already garnering the respect of his peers, a good game against Adams would only heighten that respect.
“You’re only as good as the last thing that you did,” Johnson said. “I’ve been playing good these last five weeks, but all that can go away moving forward. So, I mean, for me it’s really just kind of embracing it, but also learning who I am and what I need to do.”