Ex-Vikings Johnson, Stephen finding fit with Seahawks
By Curtis Crabtree
RENTON, Wash. (AP) — As the Seahawks try to keep their defense playing at its traditionally high level despite the absence of five former Pro Bowl selections, a pair of veteran additions from Minnesota along the defensive line could help steady the ship.
Seattle added former Vikings defensive tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen as veteran pieces along the defensive front on consecutive days in March. While Johnson and Stephen don’t directly replace Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Richard Sherman or Kam Chancellor, they are experienced veterans that played on a Vikings defense that was among the league’s best last season. Johnson and Stephen get a chance to return to Minnesota to face their former team in Seattle’s third preseason game Friday night.
“This was the place that kind of wanted both of us,” Johnson said. “I ended up telling him I was going to come here and shortly after he made the decision to come out. It was a great deal.”
Johnson — one of the few players still in the NFL to have played in NFL Europe — brings the ability to rush the passer from the interior. He posted a career-high 6.5 sacks with Minnesota in 2014 before netting just two in each of the last two seasons.
“I wish we found him six or seven years ago,” coach Pete Carroll said of Johnson. “He’s one of our guys. He’s got the chip on his shoulder and he shows it day in and day out by the way he approaches his work. … He’s fantastic and we love the fact that he’s in that room (and) got a lot of young guys with him. He’s got a fantastic influence on those guys.”
Stephen is more of a space-eating force that the Seahawks hope can help get the team’s run defense back on track after it had some uncharacteristic struggles last season. After three straight seasons in the top five against the run, the Seahawks fell to 19th last year, allowing an average of 114 yards per game on the ground.
“Shamar is big, thick, studly, big strong hands getting off blocks and filling up the line of scrimmage, and he’s a really good pursuit guy,” Carroll said.
Defensive tackle Jarran Reed was perturbed early in camp by all the focus on the players who weren’t with the team: Avril, Bennett, Sherman, Chancellor and Earl Thomas, whose holdout continues nearly a month into camp.
“Too many people are worried about them being gone,” Reed said. “We got the team here right now that’s going to go out there and battle with us on Sundays. I’m honestly tired of hearing it. We got guys right here and they can do the same thing and I just want everybody to believe in us.”
Added Johnson: “We got a mix of guys that’s athletic enough and strong enough and smart enough to be the top defensive linemen in the league so that’s one of our goals to strive for right now.”
Reed and Johnson have been Seattle’s starting defensive tackles throughout the preseason with Stephen and second-year tackle Nazair Jones rotating in situationally. Though Johnson and Stephen have more experience in the NFL than Reed or top pass-rusher Frank Clark, they’ve assimilated into Seattle’s defensive line group seamlessly since joining the team this spring.
“They’ve been very respectful in understanding the fact this is Frank and Jarran’s room,” assistant head coach Clint Hurtt said. “We’re just going to mesh and continue to build the cohesiveness of the unit and it’s been outstanding. They’re a pleasure to have.”