Bill Johnson leads with knowledge for Saints’ D line

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson watches as the team works in drills during Saints training camp Saturday.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Saints defensive line coach Bill Johnson watches as the team works in drills during Saints training camp Saturday.

Bill Johnson should be in somebody’s classroom — make that the auditorium.

He should be pacing in front of a lecture hall filled with defensive line enthusiasts, all eager to learn the nuances of football life in the trenches.

First, he’d crack a few jokes, his way of lightening the mood. Then he’d start talking, which signals it’s time to take notes.

“He’s teaching me how to be a student,” Saints rookie nose tackle John Jenkins said. “He’s showing me the effective way of being a good defensive lineman. So it’s an honor to be under his wing right now.”

To Johnson, playing the three spots at the front of the Saints’ 3-4 defense is as much art as it is barbarism. He can examine every hand movement, step and attempt at leverage Cameron Jordan takes to get to a quarterback — from first contact with the offensive lineman all the way to the sack. The same with Brodrick Bunkley in the middle of the line as he pursues a running back near his gap.

But could you really see Johnson in a suit giving a PowerPoint presentation? He’s too lax for the academic scene.

That’s why he’s here at Saints training camp, decked out in team gear as he tries to transform a talented group of linemen who, as a whole, underachieved during last season’s horrid defensive campaign. They’re part of the switch from a 4-3 defense to 3-4 scheme under new coordinator Rob Ryan.

“I feel a lot less hesitation right now,” said Johnson, talking of the new defense. “It’s a lot more ‘Sic ’em’ and ‘Let’s go.’ ”

Hit somebody.

That’s what Johnson wants to see this fall from his defensive linemen at the snap. First contact, then react. Don’t just hold your ground against that offensive lineman. Push him into the backfield, causing havoc.

Then you can find the ball carrier or quarterback.

“I want to see how hard, how fast they can get into somebody’s pads,” Johnson said. “Figure it out on the move.”

Johnson’s mind works like a high-definition video camera, recording dozens of frames of a pass rush or run defense in real time, then processing the information to his players.

“He’s got every part of our technique lined up so at every point in the snap you should be in transition to his next step,” defensive end/nose tackle Akiem Hicks said.

And remember, Johnson is diagramming movements for 288-pound guys like defensive end Tom Johnson, not ballerinas.

“He starts breaking down what you’re supposed to do — how to get your body to go vertically, how to get your body to stay down low, how to get power. He knows all these different angles,” Johnson said. “It’s mind-blowing.”

The Saints hope Johnson’s system leads to improved performances on Sunday. While Jordan enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, finishing with a team-high eight sacks among 67 tackles, the defense lacked gap control up front, allowing running backs to find running lanes.

As for the change to the 3-4, Johnson doesn’t believe there’s much difference between the defensive schemes for his linemen — you still have to make first contact. If there is a difference, it’s that the Saints are expected to add more pressure packages now that former defensive ends Will Smith, Junior Galette and Martez Wilson are working at outside linebacker.

Jordan is expected to start at defensive end, leaving the other slot for Hicks to earn. He’s also learning to play nose tackle, although the starting role may fall to Bunkley. Johnson offers speed at defensive end. Another end, Kenyon Coleman, is entering his 12th NFL season. He played last season with Ryan and injured outside linebacker Victor Butler in Dallas.

There are enough pieces to leave Johnson optimistic.

“I feel the buzz,” he said. “Our energy’s so positive.”