Making a positive play

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Albert Johnson lll has had to adjust his game to fit the scheme set out by...

Winnipeg Blue Bombers Albert Johnson lll has had to adjust his game to fit the scheme set out by the team. It hasn't prevented him from leading the league in punt-return yardage. (Winnipeg Sun/Brian Donogh)

JIM BENDER -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

Thanks to a crackdown on illegal blocks, kick returns in the CFL have become akin to flag football.

Flags fly, it seems, on just about every ball launched.

Because of that scrutiny, Winnipeg head coach Doug Berry has demanded that his returners go vertical, and never mind retreating 10-15 yards attempting to find a crack in the coverage to break a long one a la Keith Stokes, which increases the risk of penalties.

"He made it clear on what he wants us to do and that's to make a positive play out of it," Albert Johnson III, the Blue Bombers' premier kick returner, said yesterday. "And, 'Let's not lose any yards because yards are hard enough to come by as it is.' So, I did have to adjust my game a little bit because I know I can beat a lot of people around the corner, but that's not the scheme we have lined up."

But that hasn't stopped Johnson from leading the league in punt returns with 708 yards on 80 runbacks. And even with a game to go against the Lions in B.C. tomorrow, that is already more than he totalled back in 2000 when he won the CFL awards for both top rookie and special teams player. However, Johnson's 944 yards on 47 kickoff returns will fall well short of his league-leading total of 1,506 yards and one touchdown on 61 tries in 2000.

Johnson has not broken a single return for a TD this season.

"I think the (fans) are probably expecting more out of me but when you look at it, it's not like I'm the only one in the league who hasn't run one back," said the 5-foot-9, 190-pound speedster.

"And to still be among the leaders in some of the yardage categories, obviously, we've been able to do something ... We've averaged a short field for the offence every time I've returned the ball so, I'm proud of that."

Only two punts and one kickoff have been returned for touchdowns this season.

"I'm not looking for the game-breaker coming out of the special teams," Berry said. "If it happens, it happens ... We're just very happy to be consistently moving forward, give the ball to the offence, see if we can stay on the field for awhile, play the field position game.

"He's the leading returner in the CFL, yardage-wise, and there's a reason for that."

Johnson is Winnipeg's nominee for top special teams player and has a chance to represent the East in that category.

"It was a little bit frustrating but I've done what they've asked me to do and it's turned out pretty good," said Johnson, 28. "You just have to adjust your game and humble yourself because it's a team sport."

Back in 2000, Johnson also caught 50 passes for 778 yards and three touchdowns but has been used only sparingly as a receiver this season.

"I know what my role is on the team and that's to create field position for the offence," said Johnson, who has caught six passes for 51 yards this year. "We've got some outstanding receivers, I'm always ready to go in case something happens but, with the increased roster space (to 42 players), teams are going to have more guys who are just a specialist."


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