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1-2 punch?

Posted: 6:40 a.m.

Just how good is the Bengals offense?

Cincinnati has played the top three defenses in the NFL in the first seven games (Pittsburgh, Baltimore and New England) basically without its top three running backs, its No. 3 and No. 4 receivers, and its Pro Bowl right tackle as well as eight different different line combinations and is still rated fifth in the NFL.

Just how good does that make Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh?

Now the Bengals should be even better with the return of their No. 1 running back Rudi Johnson, who has carried just four times in the last four games and has missed three of the last four games with a hamstring problem.

"Double doses, two-headed monster. It's going to be fun," said right guard Bobbie Williams of the possible 1-2 punch of Johnson and Kenny Watson. "Two is better than one."

With Johnson on the shelf since Sept. 23 and Watson coming back from a concussion, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski indicated after Wednesday's practice that the plan was still being formulated.

"We have to see how they practice," Bratkowski said. "But we have to keep in mind that Rudi hasn't played in awhile and we don't want to get that leg fatigued. If both are healthy, we'll formulate that plan as we go."

Johnson insisted he's full-go.



"That's why I waited to come back now," he said. "To get on the field at 100 percent. I tried it in Kansas City (Oct. 14 with four carries) and I wasn't myself. Now I'm back to the Rudi J. we're used to seeing."

But Bengals fans might see something they haven't seen since running back Chris Perry got hurt at the end of a 2005 season he carried 61 times: A game where someone along with Johnson carries it more than five times.

The Bengals nearly knocked off the unbeaten Colts in '05 doing it, giving Perry the ball eight times and Johnson 16, and the plan in 2006 was to give it to Perry even more if he hadn't had surgery over that offseason and missed the first five games.

While Johnson struggled on three yards per carry with his straight-ahead style early this season, Watson has been at 4.7 the past four games with a shiftier game.

"It's a great combination of speed and power, and it's a good thing when you have two running backs and you're not sure who's going to start," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "Rudi's great at the power thing and coming downhill, and Kenny can run outside, Kenny can catch. He can run screens. Two very talented guys, and two guys that complement each other well and are good for our offense."

You have to go back to Nov. 30, 2003 for the last time the Bengals gave two running backs each double-digit carries in a game. Johnson (29 yards) and Corey Dillon (48) each had 10 carries in a 24-20 victory at Pittsburgh. That came a week after Johnson had 17 carries for 55 and Dillon had 18 in his last 100-yard game as a Bengal with 108 in the 34-27 win at San Diego.

Johnson, who carried the ball more than any NFL back the previous three seasons, has never made any bones in this age of the growing number of teams with two backs that he needs carries to get it going.

"It depends on the styles (of the back) and what that particular offense is for that team," said Johnson, who says he doesn't mind splitting time. "I just need to get in my groove."

Plenty of teams are finding a groove with two backs getting at least seven to eight carries per game. There are 12 teams with two backs that have at least 50 carries, and, for the most part, they've been successful running the ball.

Tennessee with LenDale White and Chris Brown is ranked third in rushing, followed by Jacksonville in fourth, Indianapolis fifth, Oakland sixth, New England eighth and Dallas 10th. All have two backs with at least 50 carries and the Vikings have to be an honorable mention at No. 2 in rushing with Adrian Peterson backed up by Chester Taylor's 49 carries.

And, when Perry was healthy, the Bengals won the AFC North with an offense ranked sixth.

There may be people saying that Watson is better than Johnson even though Johnson has 18 more 100-yard games for the Bengals, but Johnson isn't listening. With Sunday's game in Buffalo, it's a good time for a history lesson.

That's where Johnson made his first NFL start on Oct. 5, 2003 in place of the franchise's all-time leading rusher, the injured Corey Dillon. The Bengals lost as Johnson scored his first NFL touchdown on a 16-yard run and had 69 yards on 20 carries.

"If I cared about that, wouldn't I have tried to come back sooner?" Johnson asked. "I don't care what anybody says. Have I ever? That's the one thing about me. I don't care what anybody thinks about me. I'm not worried about that at all.

"I came in here with Corey Dillon, so I don't care what anybody says. You go through certain stuff in your career and life and you just have to bounce back from it. I'm up for the task. That's nothing but a small thing."

Johnson says he'd have no problems rotating with Watson, but says he's confident he can go full tilt. That's why, he says, he didn't come back until now after the hamstring tightened early in the second half Oct. 14 in Kansas City.

"I'm going to go out and play like I normally play. That's always been my mind frame," Johnson said. "That's the reason why I had to be sure I was ready to come back 100 percent. So pick up where we left off and continue to build."

Johnson's strengths are running with the lead and running in the red zone, and red zone has been so huge the past two weeks. When Watson scored three red-zone touchdowns against the Jets, they won 38-31. Last week against Pittsburgh they lost when they scored just one touchdown on four trips, one of which ended on Watson's fumble.

Of Johnson's 45 career rushing touchdowns, 42 have come in the red zone and he's looking for his first one this season.

"Of course I'm looking to help (in the red zone)," said Johnson, who laughed when asked if Marvin Lewis will go for it on fourth-and-one this week now that Johnson is back.

"I'd try to talk him into it," he said.

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