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Bengals rotation weighs in

Posted Sep 27, 2012


Michael Johnson

A.J. Green couldn't resist on Wednesday.

He saw right end Michael Johnson holding media court after being named AFC Defensive Player of the Week with a career-best three sacks and realizing Johnson is in his contract year the usually taciturn Green let out a "Pay the man."

Everyone laughed. Johnson, because he would like to stay and become "a Bengal for life" as he calls it. Green, because when the dust clears after the 2013 season he will be the highest paid Bengal of all-time. So until the fourth-year Johnson gets his finances together, he'll try to team with left end Carlos Dunlap to form the club's most powerful 1-2 sack punch in history.

It’s no coincidence that Johnson's career game came in Dunlap's first game of the season after being on the shelf for 44 days with a knee injury. The third-year Dunlap continues to amaze and  shock when healthy. With one sack Sunday, he's got all 15 of his career sacks in his last 21 games, a pace of .71 per game.

That computes to 10 sacks for this season. Johnson already has four. Throw in defensive tackle Geno Atkins with three and a franchise that hasn't had two double-digit sackers in 31 years may end up with three for the first time ever in 2012.

"(Johnson) is definitely a quality player and definitely a guy that guys have to prepare for because of his speed," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has dueled him every day in practice. "If you're on a team that has only one rusher, it's tough for you. The big thing is when he gets a chance to line up and Carlos is on the other side and Geno is in the middle, those three guys are dynamic. When you've got those three guys, it's a long day for the defensive line, that's for sure."

They'll have their work cut for them Sunday in Jacksonville (4:05 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) because while the Bengals lead the AFC in sacks, they are next to last in rushing in the NFL and face defending league rushing champion Maurice Jones-Drew.

Not only that, the team's two starting cornerbacks, Leon Hall and Nate Clements, didn't practice Wednesday, so the defense will really have to bring the heat if Hall and Clements can't play or are limited.

But the good news is that Dunlap worked full after going 45 snaps last Sunday, a pace no one thought he would have to do in his first game back but was needed because the Redskins were down by 14 points with 7:08 left in the game and had to throw to get back into it.

"It was a good amount of snaps, wasn't it?" Dunlap asked. "I guess that two-minute (drill), it adds up. The game's on the line. I didn't want to come out. I wasn't counting the reps then. When the game's on the line, that's all you're thinking about at that point in time."

Dunlap not only takes the defense's attention, he lightens the load for the line rotation, which Johnson says is the key to making it all work. With Dunlap back, it was the first time the Bengals had three pass-rushing ends together in the three games with Robert Geathers also taking a bunch of snaps. New addition Wallace Gilberry also helped, but the big three are Dunlap, Johnson and Geathers.

"I think they'll be OK with that rotation at end," said John Thornton, the former Bengals defensive tackle and current media analyst. "If you can get Carlos and Mike around 40 snaps a game and Rob 30 so that Carlos and Mike are fresh in the fourth quarter, they'll be fine. That's a solid rotation."

But Johnson has proven to be a tough guy to get off the field. He has played 182 of the defense's 202 snaps and defensive line coach Jay Hayes would like to give him more of a rest, but he's also trying to ease Dunlap back into things. He'll also have to ease Dontay Moch back into it when he comes back from an NFL suspension this week.

But the 6-7 Johnson has prepared for it. After last season's promising start was dinged by injury and getting worn down, the 265-pounder put on 10 or so pounds of added muscle during a myriad of offseason workout regimens at a variety of sites.

He still won't reveal his weight, but we do know he has trouble keeping it on.

"I'm just trying to stay over 270. If I do that I'll be fine," Johnson said. "Over the years it's been a little easier to keep a little more on, a little more on. It definitely helps with durability. The stronger you are the more you can protect yourself on the field. It makes doing certain things easier."

Thornton got Johnson hooked up with a trainer and nutritionist, Jim Riggs, in the offseason in the Cincinnati suburb of Silverton, as well as with Brett Fischer Sports in Arizona. That supplemented his time with assistant Bengals strength coach Robert Harris in head strength coach Chip Morton's program.

"Mike's a high-effort player, now it's a case of bringing technique into it," Thornton said. "It's a matter of conditioning and technique for him. Whenever he has bad plays, it's not because he's physically outmatched. With the way the schedule is now and players are away from the facility for so long in the offseason, you have to have what amounts to another workout program."  

Johnson thinks it has worked.

"I did a couple of different things. I think it's good to trick your body so your body doesn't get used to a certain routine," Johnson said.  "And the more you can switch up what you do the better your body will respond. At least that's how mine works. But I felt Rob Harris was a big help. Chip Morton, the strength and conditioning staff here. Power Three Fitness with Jim Riggs. All those guys played a major role in what you're seeing. I'm just going to keep working and keep building. It's early. I feel I've gotten off to a pretty good start with everything and I want everything to continue to grow."

Just ask Whitworth.

"I think that added weight has been a huge factor for him. You've seen the difference. Just watch him play," Whitworth said. "He got to (Pro Bowler) D'Brickashaw (Ferguson) a few times when we played the Jets. He's been a millisecond away from having multiple sacks in every game. He played great against Cleveland (and another Pro Bowler, Joe Thomas), and he's put two great games together back-to-back.

"He's always had exceptional speed and get-off. He's a long guy in the mold of John Abraham. He's tall and long and super, super fast. There are a lot of fast guys, but when you don't have any power behind it, fast isn't really that big of deal. Now he's added some weight. He's really worked his butt off in the weight room and he's got strength; that's when you really become a dynamic rusher."

Hayes would also add savvy to speed and strength to the list.

"He's still as quick as he was," Hayes said. "He gets off the mark. He gets his hands in front of his eyes. He's staying low. Those are the two things he's good at and he's trying not to work on moves Nos. 3, 4 and 5. He's just doing No. 1 and No. 2."

Sunday's three sacks marked half the total Johnson had last season, matched what he had as a rookie, and was more than what he did in 2010. Also a factor Sunday was that Redskins left tackle Trent Williams went down in the opening moments and backup Jordan Black couldn't block him.

"After 71 went down, we all knew that we had a great chance of getting after (quarterback Robert Griffin III)," Dunlap said. "And No. 60 (Jordan Black), I guess he wasn't ready to play. You've got a big-name left tackle like that in front of you, naturally you're not expecting to play as many snaps as he might have played. You're supposed to train throughout the week just in case, and Mike took full advantage of his opportunity to get after the quarterback."

Johnson is used to playing the best lineman every Sunday at left tackle and he'll get Jacksonville's best in Eugene Monroe, the Virginia product drafted two slots after Bengals right tackle Andre Smith in the 2009 top 10. He also came out the same year Johnson came out of Georgia Tech at the top of the third round after they had some big matchups in the ACC.

"That's something else I think that Mike has been adjusting to," Thornton said. "Not only is he getting used to playing NFL defensive end after they had him at SAM backer for a while (in his second OTAs), now he's learning to play the best left tackles. You've got to learn that mentality. You've got to bring your best every week, and he has played well against some top players."

While Johnson is the classic edge rusher, performing best when he gets on an outside shoulder, Dunlap simply mauls people. With a .71-sack average per game in his last 21 games, that's a magic number. That was all-time sack leader Bruce Smith's average with 200 sacks in 279 games and No. 3 on the list, Kevin Greene with 160 in 228 games.

"I want to be like the closer and be that guy my teammates can count on when they need that big play," Dunlap said. "But I obviously want to make it in the first quarter as well."

Now they're hoping everybody joins in.

 

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