Sack watch

Posted Nov 5, 2009

Michael Johnson

Posted: 10:15 p.m.

Bengals defensive line coach Jay Hayes remembers that first pro sack.

Steve Young.

So does left end Robert Geathers.

Against Dallas. Vinny Testaverde.

Both think rookie right end Michael Johnson’s first one is just around the corner and he’s hoping it is Sunday in the 1 p.m. game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Ravens, a formidable task since the Bengals offensive line has the sixth best sacks-per-pass ratio in the league.

Hayes doesn’t know when, but “he’ll get one at some point and he’ll get more than one. He’s been very close. I think a lot of it is he’s trying to do too much at times. Trying to think too much. Go above and beyond. He’s over-thinking it a little bit instead of just letting things come to him.”

With right end Antwan Odom’s team–best eight sacks erased from the team total of 17 by a torn Achilles, the Bengals are trying to exert the same kind of pressure from the front four with a slightly different cast. But Johnson’s role is pretty much staying the same as a rusher on passing downs, mainly from the edge but sometimes inside at tackle and standing up at outside linebacker.

He figures the games in which he played the most - about 35 snaps - were before Odom’s injury (Green Bay) and after (Chicago). The games the Bengals had fourth-quarter leads. Hayes says the team will continue to run guys through in a rotation and give the offenses different looks. Inside. Outside. Down. Up. End Frostee Rucker had his best game of his NFL career (so says Marvin Lewis) rushing from inside last week against Chicago.
“What is this? The eighth game? I think the biggest thing is I’m just getting more comfortable,” Johnson said.

Geathers, a fourth-round pick from Georgia in 2004, is helping the third-rounder from Georgia Tech get acclimated. They’re different players with different builds. Geathers is 6-3, 265 pounds and Johnson is four inches taller at about the same weight. Geathers is the workmanlike, physical grinder coming every play. Johnson is the athletic specimen with a prehistoric wingspan.

“He’s progressing. He’s had some good rushes. He’s doing some good things,” Geathers said. “He’s getting back there. He’s in the guy’s face. He lets them feel his presence. He’s got tipped passes (three). That’s like a sack.”

Johnson says he’s learning how to use what he’s got instead of worrying about what NFL offensive lineman have, which is size, strength and quick feet. “I want to use my strength," he said. "Use my length and extension. That neutralizes a lot of the stuff they’re trying to do as far as their size. Get long on them. It kind of puts me at an advantage and I’m going to try and continue to do that.

“They keep telling me to stay low and keep the pad level down and just get off on the ball. That’s what good rushers do: Anticipate the snap. Get the rhythm. Sometimes you have to go off cadence.”

He won’t lie. Like Hayes and Geathers before him, Johnson is going to savor that first one and he’ll feel a lot better when it happens. But he’s also remembering what his workout guru in Atlanta, former Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith, has been telling him since his junior year. Smith, who had three double-digit sack seasons in the ‘90s, said it is a strange business.

“He said not to worry because (sacks) come in bunches,” Johnson said. “You may have 100 great rushes and every time the quarterback will just barely get it off. And then you just may be jiving and you fall into one.”

It will be tough to fall into one Sunday against monstrous left tackle Jared Gaither, a 6-9, 340-pounder who is even longer than Johnson. When Johnson was a sophomore he had two sacks against Gaither’s Maryland team, but he wasn’t working against Gaither.

“He was on the other side,” Johnson said. “It was kind of a breakthrough game for me.”

They all remember those, right? Geathers remembers getting a game ball for his effort against the Cowboys in a 26-3 win that not only included his first sack, but a forced fumble and a tipped ball and “after that I started to play more in the nickel package," he said. "I had been playing mainly special teams.”

Geathers got it in the eighth game of the season on Nov. 7, 2004 at PBS. Johnson can celebrate the five-year anniversary in this season’s eighth game on Nov. 8.

But one of the striking stats is that Geathers has just 0.5 sacks this season. He has just 6.5 sacks since his 10.5-sack season in 2006, and he’ll admit, “If I get (a one-on-one) opportunity, I’ve got to take advantage. I’m not going to make excuses.”

But even when Odom was playing, Geathers got his share of double teams and chip blocks. That’s the life of an NFL end, period. “They’re going to protect their guy no matter who is rushing,” he said. Yet Geathers has become one of the team leaders with an extremely upbeat outlook despite the ups and downs of his position. For most of last year, for instance, the Bengals never had a lead. And then when they did Geathers missed the last five games with a knee injury.

“I want numbers, but we’re winning and our defense is playing pretty darn good. I’ll take that over the numbers,” Geathers said. “It’s a little frustrating at times, my teammates can tell. I’m trying to be a team player. This is beginning to be a complete defense. We’re playing pretty good defense, so I think the sacks will come for me. I just have to keep pumping and not let it get to me mentally.”

The one thing those 10.5 sacks did? He was no longer the 21-year-old kid that sacked Testaverde a week before his 41st birthday in a breakout game.

“They know who I am. I’m on the radar,” Geathers said.

So is Michael Oher, the Ravens rookie right tackle that is the subject of a movie. You can bet that hasn’t been lost on Geathers, who’ll be looking to use all six of his seasons of experience on Baltimore’s first-round pick. Savvy vs. slick.

“It will be a good one,” said Geathers, who is heeding the same advice he’s giving Johnson.

“Defensive ends, D-linemen, you dream to get sacks. Once you get that first one, you've got that swag, like, ‘I can get back there now.’ It’s kind of mental. Once he gets that first one it will get rolling for him.”




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