METAIRIE — Even though Marquis Johnson has appeared in only five NFL regular-season games during his first two years in the league, thanks to three major injuries, no one had to tell him it was time to go to work Tuesday.
Not only did he have to jump into the starting lineup on a moment’s notice at left cornerback after Jabari Greer couldn’t go in practice because of a groin problem, Johnson had to do it with Drew Brees taking aim at him.
“Anything can happen in this league; you’re always one play away,” said Johnson. “I will never be mad being a backup in the NFL or a practice squad player. You shouldn’t be, because if anything happens you have to be ready. If you get called upon, you have to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Despite being thrown into the fire just one week after reporting to training camp as a third-string corner behind Greer and Elbert Mack, Johnson was up to the task most of the day.
But he expected nothing less from himself, which was good news for the defensive staff considering right cornerback Patrick Robinson was also sidelined for practice with a shoulder injury.
Johnson won some battles and lost some, but remained upbeat about what he was able to get done for a team that is seeking a fourth cornerback to emerge to go with Greer, Robinson and nickel back Johnny Patrick.
“Just because somebody beats you doesn’t mean you have to get down,” said Johnson, who earned praise from interim head coach Joe Vitt for his efforts.
“Yeah, it was very encouraging,” Vitt said. “Again, we’re early in the process here. There’s a long way to go, but he had a good morning.”
In the first 11-on-11 period, Johnson, who played for the St. Louis Rams the past two seasons under new Saints defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, showed up early.
Defensive end Carmeron Jordan tipped a pass by Brees and an alert Johnson dove and managed to get his hands under the ball for an interception before it could hit the ground.
“Things started off great and then I felt the heat a little bit,” Johnson said. “At the same time, I was saying, ‘It’s cold out here. It’s cold out here. It’s cold out here.’ I just kept clawing and fighting and learned some things.”
One of the things he remembered on the fly was to regain his focus when fatigue started to set in later in the practice.
“When you get tired, your body gets sloppy and you slow up a little,” he said. “You have to realize that you’ve got to settle back down, focus, get some water and come back and do it all over again. I learned that again today. You have to be more consistent in showing up when the times are rough.”
That’s been the story of Johnson’s life since the Rams made him their seventh-round pick in the 2010 draft, just three months after he helped Alabama win the 2009 BCS title.
Each of his first two seasons, however, ended with him on injured reserve.
In 2010, he had to have microfracture surgery on his knee and also suffered a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Then, after starting the 2011 season on the physically-unable-to-perform list while still recovering from his knee injury, Johnson played in three games before breaking four ribs and tearing his spleen in a game at Seattle.
Ironically, Johnson’s first game last year came when he was the nickel corner for the struggling Rams in a shocking 31-21 thumping of the Saints.
“I played the game of my life,” said Johnson, who had four tackles and a forced fumble that day. “I played great, and then three games later (the injury) happened.”
Even though the Rams gave Brees fits that day, intercepting him twice and sacking him six times, Johnson knew what he was going to be up against when training camp started.
When Brees, who missed all of the offseason workouts while negotiating a new contract, checked in for training camp, Johnson went up to introduce himself. But he got a surprise instead.
“Drew said, ‘I know you. I played against you when you were with the Rams,’ ” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘You wore No. 25, right?’ I played three games last season and the fact that he remembered me out of all the games he’s played, that’s amazing. It tells how much film work he does.”
Now he’s happy to be on Brees’ side, even if it means lining up against him in camp.
“I love it, I love it,” said Johnson, who chose to sign with the Saints over an offer from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. “If you can do good against Drew, imagine what you can do against some other guys. If you get one pick off him, you might get three off somebody else.”
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