PITTSBURGH BVB — PITTSBURGH -- It took six games before Pepper Johnson started acting like Pepper Johnson. There the New York Giants linebacker was in the middle of Giants Stadium last Sunday, waving his hands in the air, strutting around the field, working the crowd as well as Jimmy Connors works the U.S. Open.
That was the Johnson of 1990 who helped the Giants beat the Cardinals; the Johnson who until then had been noticeably quiet in 1991 even though he leads the team with 40 tackles heading into tonight's game with the Pittsburgh Steelers at Three Rivers Stadium.
Johnson blames the absence of his on-the-field celebrations on the lack of opportunities for the helmet-to-helmet, smash-mouth football that he craves. In short, teams have been running away from Johnson.
"Sometimes it makes you sick," he said. "I like to run and make contact with somebody, even if it's just the offensive guard coming at me. If teams are constantly running away, I'm faced with backside fill, where guys are dropping on the ground trying to cut me or they just push you in the back. By the time I get over there, the guy's already tackled. So it becomes boring and I find myself on the bench thinking, 'Damn, I'm not even playing.' It can bother you after a time. I know it bothers me."
The Phoenix game a week ago Sunday brought out the best in Johnson because it ran a number of plays toward him. Most teams run the majority of their plays to their strong side, or away from Johnson, the weak-side inside linebacker. "I've played two games [Dallas and Chicago] where there was one run my way and two passes," Johnson said. "It's hard to play your position and still make plays when the opportunities aren't there. I'm not going to say people are running away from me. Some teams' schemes are like that. It's frustrating when you're not getting an opportunity to make plays or rush the quarterback."
Johnson, who missed a month of camp in a salary dispute, isn't far off last season's pace, when after six games he led the team with 43 tackles. He also had two passes defensed, compared to one this year. The difference is where last year's tackles stood out, this year's tackles have gone almost unnoticed. "It's not the kind of stuff a true football guy, a guy that likes contact, would like during the course of the game," Johnson said.
The Steelers have shown a tendency to run plays to their weak side, so Johnson hopes to make some big plays in front of a national television audience tonight. "I might get a little more action," he said. "At least I hope so."