When the undefeated Chicago Bears resume practice this week, following a Sunday bye, three-year veteran safety Todd Johnson will find himself in a spot that is becoming far too familiar: Replacing starting strong safety Mike Brown in the lineup.
Despite the luxury of having more than a week to deliberate, and with plenty of available options, Chicago coaches decided late last week that Johnson will be the player to replace Brown for a third consecutive season.
Brown suffered a season-ending right foot injury in last Monday night's comeback victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Brown had surgery at mid-week to repair damage to the Lisfranc ligament of his foot and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.
Johnson, 27, has started a dozen games in his career, all in place of Brown, who, by the end of the season, will have missed 28 games in the last three years.
"It's a tough spot, but guys are looking to me, and I've been [in this situation] before," said Johnson, a fourth-round choice in the 2003 draft who spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve. "You always look forward to more playing time, but not this way. I'm not Mike Brown and I won't try to be. The thing is for me to just go out and do what I'm supposed to do in this defense, to fit in and make plays."
The former University of Florida standout might not possess the big-play mentality of Brown, who holds the franchise record for touchdowns by a defender with seven, but he is regarded as a solid defender and an aggressive, physical hitter. Although he lacks speed, Johnson is a bright and instinctive defender who prepares well, is rarely out of position and who plays with notable efficiency.
His strength is probably against the run, when he plays close to the line of scrimmage, and he can quickly fill holes. But his range in pass coverage, considered average, is aided by his innate football awareness.
"Todd is a very sound, physical guy," said weakside linebacker Lance Briggs. "He'll do fine."
In his 36 regular-season appearances, Johnson has 124 tackles, four passes defensed and a fumble recovery. He has also been a standout on the Bears' special teams units.
While coach Lovie Smith opted for Johnson and has great faith in him, there is still a chance that second-year veteran Chris Harris could challenge for playing time as well in helping Brown's absence. Harris started at free safety as a rookie in 2005, lost his job to rookie Danieal Manning after the first two games this season, and is rehabilitating from a quadriceps injury. When healthy, he could see more playing time.
Despite the injury, Brown is expected to serve as a mentor for the team's young safety corps and could accompany the team even on road games.
Despite the rash of injuries, including a torn Achilles that cost him 14 games in 2004 and a strained calf that forced Brown to sit out the final four contests last season, general manager Jerry Angelo indicated last week that the veteran safety likely will be back in 2007. Even Brown, who has two years remaining on a contract that is scheduled to pay him $2.44 million each in 2007 and 2008, had suggested he might not return with such a high price tag and a bulging medical dossier.
"The bad news is, he's had three years [of injuries], and at the end of the year, we will deal with our situation," Angelo said. "But if you're asking do I want Mike Brown back, certainly, I do."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.