When Danny Johnson returned to practice Nov. 21, the Washington Redskins had 21 days to figure out what to do with the second-year cornerback.
Johnson had been on the physically unable to perform list since the start of training camp as he recovered from a fractured patella in his right knee. Once healthy, the Redskins essentially put him through a three-week audition. If he performed well, they'd promote him to the 53-man roster, If not, they could release him.
With injuries ravaging the secondary, the Redskins not only activated Johnson off the PUP list last week but also started him on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles. And despite having not played in 364 days, Johnson had by far the best defensive showing on his young career.
"For me, I just felt great," said Johnson, who finished with a game-high 10 tackles (nine solo) while playing 71% of the defensive snaps.
"Just the opportunity to be back out there, just playing with those guys, just going through practice, going through the three weeks that I had before they made the decision. I was trying to keep confidence and go out there and practice hard every day, just give it my all and let them make the decision in the end. I just try to contribute any way I can, whether it's special teams or defensively."
Interim head coach Bill Callahan said Monday that it was no surprise that Johnson played well. During his first week back, Johnson impressed Callahan with the way he tightly guarded rookie and No. 1 wide receiver Terry McLaurin throughout practice.
Callahan remembers thinking, "Man, if we can get this kind of look at practice, it's going to make the game a little bit easier for Terry." And sure enough, McLaurin had his best-career game against the Eagles, hauling in five catches for a season-high 130 yards and a 75-yard touchdown.
But it wasn't just Johnson's performance against McLaurin that caught Callahan's attention. Johnson was excelling with several coverage techniques, both when pressing and playing off the ball. He showed the ability to come up and stop the run, too. On Sunday, he translated those habits into the NFC East showdown.
"The production as you mentioned, the nine solo [tackles] that he had, just speaks volumes to his play," Callahan said of Johnson. "Really glad to see him have such a big day yesterday."
Check out photos of the Washington Redskins during their regular season Week 15 game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Johnson admitted he was not expecting to start against the Eagles, but once Quinton Dunbar was ruled out with a hamstring injury in pregame warmups, he was the one who lined up opposite Fabian Moreau on the first defensive possession. His first tackle came on the last play of the first quarter, when he pushed running back Miles Sanders out of bounds after an 18-yard pickup.
Having not played in nearly a year, Johnson said it took about a quarter to get back into the flow of the game. That's when everything started to slow down for him, which allowed him to focus on "just playing football."
"I'm just glad to be back out there, that's it for me," Johnson said. "I'm happy to just be away from this injury moving forward, and I'm just trying to keep building."
Johnson certainly set a high bar for himself Sunday. His nine solo tackles matched his totals from all of last season in 14 appearances (one start), and his 10 total tackles were the most by a Redskins defensive back since Bashaud Breeland in 2016.
He also played in 71% of the defensive snaps against the Eagles. As a rookie, he played more than 26% of the defensive snaps just once.
"Those guys are awesome [and] everyday in practice they communicate well," Johnson said about the rest of the secondary. "If I mess up on something, it's, 'All right, let's get it the next time.' They've been doing a great job of coaching me up and helping me out so I'm not lagging behind."
Johnson said he actually feels better than he did before the knee injury. For one, he did not lose any of his speed the Redskins coveted when they signed him as an undrafted free agent immediately after the 2018 NFL Draft.
And with the extended time off, Johnson is fresher and more motivated than ever. The recovery put him "in a dark place" at the beginning, but Johnson relied on his faith, family, teammates and coaches for positivity and support.
Nowadays, Johnson is in charge of bolstering a secondary that seems to get thinner by the week. The Redskins placed slot corner Jimmy Moreland on injured reserve earlier this week, while fellow starters (Dunbar and Moreau) are dealing with injuries of their own.
Their complications will only open up more playing time for Johnson, who has already validated the team's decision to keep him around.
"Coming back, I put so much time into just trying to make sure that I got back to 100% because I wanted to play with these guys again," Johnson said. "That's why I think I'm feeling better and I'm in a better place mentally. I just feel like that's another part that was holding me back when I first had the injury, but now I'm in a great place, so it actually feels good."