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C.J. Gardner-Johnson found comfort zone last season with New Orleans Saints

'When they said relax, slow down, just understand what you're doing, that's when I found my groove'

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No recitation of C.J. Gardner-Johnson's football abilities can conclude without mention of his prodigious ability to stir the opposition.

And by "stir," we mean "tick off to the point of distraction and violence."

Punches have been thrown at him. Shoves have found his face and shoulder pads. Wipeouts on Hail Mary passes have found the mark. Less-than-genteel words – ones that require seven-second delays, bleeps, and NC-17 warnings – have been directed at him.

Gardner-Johnson, the New Orleans Saints' third-year defensive back, hasn't professed to being an angel. But rarely, if ever, has he been found guilty of crossing the line, which is why after completing his second NFL season in 2020, more talk ensued regarding his prodigious ability to disrupt an opposing offense with his play.

C.J.G.J found a sweet spot last year, and is looking to add to the production this season.

"I felt like a kid," he said of last season, when he finished with 66 tackles, 13 passes defensed, five tackles for loss, an interception, four quarterback hits and a sack. He was credited with forcing incompletions on 40 of 94 targets against him.

"When they told me to go out there and just play football and relax – a lot of people play this game and go out there all tight," he said. "I'm me. So when they said relax, slow down, just understand what you're doing, that's when I found my groove. Not when I started making plays, (but) when I understood what I was doing within the defense.

"It was the defense as a whole, when I found my niche when I knew I could communicate, actually ask questions, understand what my role was on how to improve the team. I feel like when I knew I could change games – take the talking out of it, just watch the film – when I understand what's going on, my teammates and I, we play 10 times better."

Gardner-Johnson, the Saints' fourth-round pick in 2019, credited defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and former secondary coach Aaron Glenn, who now is defensive coordinator for the Lions, with aiding his progress.

"Understanding leverage," he said. "Understanding where to be. Understanding not just to be there, but understanding why I'm there. Like, 'Why am I in the curl flat,' or, 'Why am I in the half,' or, 'Why do I have to fill this B gap?'

Check out photos of New Orleans Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson in action during the 2020 NFL season.

"Because you've got 10 other guys depending on you. From Year 1 to Year 2, you understand it, but you don't fully grasp the meaning of it. So I think I grasped, doing my job can make it easier on somebody else next to me to do their job."

And now that Gardner-Johnson has a greater understanding, prominent on his to-do list – in addition to gaining acclaim as being the league's best nickel back – is making sure his teammates are as comfortable as he is.

"Now it's about bringing your teammates with you," he said. "How can you bring the next guy so he can grasp that same meaning? Because everybody doesn't play this game for long.

"It's about plugging and play. It sounds cliché but in reality, you do plug and play. You plug your mind into this game, you plug your feelings into this game, you plug your emotions. So you have to understand, how do you take that jump from Year 1 to Year 2, mentally? Year 2 to Year 3? OK, mental, physical, how can I bring it along?"

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