John Johnson didn’t want to wait.
The Rams safety didn’t care that it was only March 8, that the season was still six months away, that there’d be plenty of time to bond with his new teammate later. As soon as he discovered the Rams had signed veteran safety Eric Weddle, Johnson raced to the team’s practice facility in Thousand Oaks.
He wanted to meet his new partner in the secondary.
“It was kind of like we knew each other already,” Johnson said. “It was all love.”
Johnson, 23, and Weddle, 34, aren’t carbon copies. The 6-foot, 209-pound Johnson has the size advantage on Weddle, who is 5-11 and 195. Weddle has the edge in experience, with 173 starts to Johnson’s 30. Their personalities differ too.
“He was married at a young age,” Johnson chuckled. “I’m completely opposite. I’m outgoing, young, out here in L.A., vibing.”
But on the field, their skill sets have proved complementary. Together, they’ve become key cogs in a Rams defense that ranks third in the NFL in yards against, fourth in pass defense, and has surrendered only one touchdown through the air. Three weeks into the season, their relationship has flourished.
“You want to get to the point where you think alike, you don’t have to say much, you move in unison,” Weddle said. “The communication takes time, but he’s extremely smart. He’s well beyond his years in the game.”
Even in his first year with the Rams, Weddle has become a leader on defense. The two-time All-Pro and 13-year veteran is the unit’s signal-caller, scanning the field and relaying adjustments before every play.
“He’s the quarterback of the whole defense,” Johnson said. “Working with him is going to take my game to a whole ‘nother level.”
Johnson, drafted out of Boston College by the Rams in the third round in 2017, had long followed Weddle’s career. He knew the safety’s reputation as a heads-up, hard-hitting force across the middle. He had watched highlights from Weddle’s days with the Chargers and Baltimore Ravens. Johnson was eager to introduce himself.
“I knew who he was,” Johnson said. “But I didn’t know him personally.”
Weddle was in the Rams’ press room, having just signed his two-year, $10.5-million contract, when Johnson arrived on that March afternoon.
“He was excited,” Weddle recalled. “He popped up, we hugged it out.”
There was an adjustment period thereafter. During his first two years in the league, Johnson played alongside Lamarcus Joyner, who signed with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent this offseason after failing to agree to terms on a contract extension with the Rams. Weddle, meanwhile, had to be integrated into a Rams defense that had eight starters returning from a 2018 squad that went to the Super Bowl.
Johnson and Weddle worked side-by-side in the summer and training camp, learning each other’s tendencies until they practiced in lockstep. So far, Johnson has two interceptions, Weddle has 19 tackles, and the Rams are giving up fewer than 200 passing yards per game.
“It’s been moving like this,” Johnson said, his arm pointed up, “at a quick rate.”
Echoed coach Sean McVay: “You look at Eric’s experience and the amount of different things that he’s seen, and then watching the way that he and John have ended up kind of connected. I think they have both raised each other’s level of play.”
Weddle agrees. He pointed to Johnson’s game-clinching interception at Cleveland on Sunday as an example.
On the decisive fourth-and-goal from the Rams’ four-yard line, Weddle settled into double coverage. Then the play broke down. Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was chased from the pocket, and away from Weddle’s half of the field. Mayfield threw toward receiver Damion Ratley near the far sideline. Johnson, who had picked up Ratley in coverage mid-route, jumped the pass and picked it off.
“Amazing,” Weddle said of the play. “It was awesome … I see JJ doing a Usain Bolt sprint afterward. I’m like, ‘Slow down, I just want to come dap you up.’ ”
As they danced back to the sideline together, their gulf in experience, age, and makeup disappeared. On the field, they’ve become almost one and the same.
“Same intention, same mind-set,” Johnson said. “We want to get to the same point. We want to reach the same success. Obtain the same goals.”
Together, they’ve set their sights high.
“We want to be the best safety tandem in the league,” Johnson said. “We said that from Day 1.”