Plain name, flashy hair -- John Johnson finds star role on Rams' loaded defense

John Johnson III had an interception in Week 1 against the Raiders and is tied for the team lead with 16 tackles after two weeks. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- John Johnson III might have a common name, but he hardly blends into a crowd.

The 6-foot, 209-pound Los Angeles Rams safety sports braided bleach-blond hair in contrast to his jet-black beard.

"Easiest color to spot," Johnson said when asked what inspired his hairstyle. "Same reason why cabs in New York are yellow."

Through two games, Johnson and linebacker Cory Littleton are leading the Rams (2-0) in tackles. Johnson had a team-high seven in a shutout against the Arizona Cardinals (0-2).

Yet, as several Rams players stood in the locker room conducting media interviews last Sunday, Johnson stood alone as he quietly gathered his belongings.

Flashy hair and all, it's difficult to stand out, let alone gain outside attention, when playing on a defense that includes reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, All-Pro defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and All-Pro cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib.

But Johnson's productivity is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, and it likely will be on display again Sunday when the Rams host the Los Angeles Chargers (1-1) at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

"He's brought a lot," Rams coach Sean McVay said about Johnson. "He's been really, really good."

In a Week 1 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Johnson initially struggled when matched up with tight end Jared Cook. But Johnson adjusted and, in the second quarter, changed the momentum of the game when he slid in front of Cook and intercepted a deep pass by quarterback Derek Carr in the end zone. The turnover was converted into a field goal in the 33-13 victory.

"Great instincts, great communication, great awareness and he's an excellent tackler," McVay said. "He's a complete safety, and I think he's really started to take a leadership role, especially with just his command of the defense, the understanding."

Last Sunday, in a shutout over the Cardinals, Johnson almost single-handedly shut down the Cardinals' opening drive with four tackles in six plays as the Rams' defense limited the Cardinals to 137 total yards of offense.

"Really assignment football, I read my keys and go and just make plays," Johnson said. "But aside from that, different packages I'm used as kind of a linebacker, so they move me around a lot, and I think it's because I have it up top, mentally, and I just have to roam around and make plays."

It didn't take Peters, who was acquired in an offseason trade and has an NFL-best 20 interceptions dating to 2015, long to recognize Johnson's talent.

"He's gonna be an All-Pro soon," Peters said a week into training camp. "That dude got some knowledge to him, he knows how to play football, he plays fast. That's what you want out of a safety."

The Rams selected Johnson out of Boston College with a third-round pick in 2017. By Week 5 of his rookie season, the team felt comfortable enough with his progress to cut veteran Maurice Alexander and start Johnson alongside Lamarcus Joyner.

Johnson finished the season ranked 17th among all safeties, according to Pro Football Focus. He had 56 tackles, 11 pass deflections and an interception. He was considered a force in both stopping the run and in pass coverage.

In defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme, Johnson's responsibilities are plentiful. In the base defense, he's either in man-to-man coverage or in the run game. He's a safety, but he also plays a role similar to a linebacker.

"That safety position, specifically where he's playing, requires and entails a lot of communication based on what the offense is in personnel grouping-wise," McVay said. "You see the versatility that he provides us."

In two games this season, Johnson also has three pass deflections to pair with his interception and 16 tackles.

Given the talent Johnson is surrounded by, it's likely he'll have the opportunity to continue to stand out, regardless of his hair color.

"Teams are going to try to come at me," Johnson said. "I guess they don't want to go at them, so they're going to come at me, and I just got to keep making plays."