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Baby boom

Michael Johnson (Bengals photo)

Posted: 8:40 p.m.

They are getting pretty excited about the defense around these parts.

The Bengals have desperately missed that Tim Krumrie nastiness for nearly two decades, but Chris Crocker's ferocious hit on the Steelers' Santonio Holmes late last season seemed to ring the bell of change. With five-time Pro Bowl safety Roy Williams and veteran defensive tackle Tank Johnson checking in during free agency and college stars Rey Maualuga and Michael Johnson arriving via the draft to help give the defense a No. 9 ranking in NFL preseason, linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald is thinking nasty thoughts.

"We have some nasty, we do," FitzGerald said this week. "We just aren't seeing it all yet. We just need to digest. The system hasn't done its thing yet. When everything's digested, baby, look out."

What you have to look out for are the babies, particularly Johnson and Maualuga, born 17 days apart in 1987, the year Krumrie went to his first Pro Bowl and the Bengals defense finished in the NFL's top 10 in a feat that has happened just twice since.

Johnson and Maualuga haven't done anything in the regular season yet, but they've done one thing in the preseason: Turn some of the pre-draft scouting reports into fantasy football.

Johnson, who was supposed to lack toughness, got his first start last week while playing through a shoulder injury. Maualuga, who isn't supposed to be a three-down backer, had a low test score so he was supposed to lack brains. But he's been savvy and nimble enough to play in several different packages while being tied for third on the team with 11 tackles despite missing the opener.

"It just goes to show you the resiliency the guy's got," said special teams coach Darrin Simmons of Johnson. "He knows what's been put out there prior to the draft and going into the draft and after the draft. That was his M.O. We've seen no part of that. We've seen exactly the opposite if you ask me."

Maualuga is pushing for the starting SAM job and may get it by the opener. Johnson figures to end up in the first team nickel some how some way. Until they start, Simmons is drooling over their possibilities on his coverage teams. 

The 6-7, 266-pound Johnson's freakish build has been compared to everyone from Ted Hendricks to Jevon Kearse to Adalius Thomas. Tank Johnson adds Mark Anderson, a fifth-round draft pick of the Bears in 2006.

"He's tough; he looks a lot like Mark Anderson," Tank Johnson said. "He was a rookie that had a lot of pride about himself, about his talent, and he had 12 sacks as a rookie and nobody expected him to do anything because he was a late pick.

"He's got to put on some more chest, some more arms, but he's just a kid. That's not weight-room strength. That's field strength. I like everything about him. The one thing about him is you have to be unwavering about your confidence."

Michael Johnson, otherwise known as "Giraffe" for his long neck, may have confidence. But he speaks quietly and still ends all answers with "Sir." Asked why he hasn't taken off much time with his nicked shoulder, he said, "When they shut me down, I'll shut it down. Until then, I want to be in there with the guys I'm going to go to war with."

As for playing hurt, he shrugged.

"I played through much worse in college," he said.

Johnson may sit in Thursday's preseason finale, but the coaches would love to get him as many reps as possible. Johnson doesn't have great stats. He's got six tackles and he's still looking for his first sack, which is why the Bengals drafted him. But he leads the team with three special-teams tackles and has impressed coaches and teammates alike with his willingness to play the run. Plus, he's provided some pressure around the edge.

"He plays hard. He's tough. He's smart," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "There's a couple of things he's not doing but for the most part he's been a pleasant surprise. I think he'll help us this year."

But probably not at left end. Johnson started at right in place of the injured Antwan Odom last week, but with the Bengals depleted he took about five snaps on the left to give some guys a blow.

"He was kind of dinged up, so he was in the wrong stance a little bit when he was over there. Right end is probably his deal," Zimmer said. "His pads are down, his strength is good. Sometimes he takes a long step. Sometimes he runs by the quarterback. We've got to fix those things, but for the most part, he's been good.

"I think he's serious about this. I think he's serious about changing his image and what people think."

Johnson says he's leaving it up to the observers and not worrying about it.

"I know who I am. Like I told you before, my teammates and coaches know who I am," Johnson said. "Now I'm on a new level and I just have to show it."

FitzGerald says he never buys those Wonderlic scores. Maualuga got a 15 out of 50, but FitzGerald went to USC and pumped him about line stunts and rolling safeties, quizzing him about not only his responsibilities but those of the other players in the defense.

"When guys can talk about that, that starts to tell me something about football," FitzGerald said.

While FitzGerald was pumping Maualuga on the West Coast, Bill Tobin, the Bengals Southeast scout, was at Georgia Tech staking out Johnson. Zimmer and head coach Marvin Lewis first met him in a Mobile, Ala., hotel room when Johnson drove down from Atlanta to meet some teams at the Senior Bowl. In the end, it was a fortuitous meeting because Johnson should have been playing against the North team they were coaching in the Senior Bowl. Instead, he simmered until the top of the third round.

"Bill Tobin is the guy that spent the most time with him," Zimmer said. "He got some bad advice. He should have played in that game. He probably would have helped himself."

And maybe the Bengals wouldn't have had a shot at getting him. But Maualuga played in that game and his stock still dropped. Zimmer, though, feels like he did his homework.

"Regardless, people are going to talk. People are going to say one thing about you and say you can't do this," Maualuga said. "But one thing Coach Zimmer told me, 'All the coaches were saying that you're only a two-down linebacker. I know you're a three-down linebacker.' Those kind of things make you want to play for those kind of coaches.

"Regardless of what I say, it wasn't going to help me get drafted at the slot I wanted. I'm just going to come here and let my play speak for itself."

When it comes to Maualuga and Johnson, the Bengals have to be glad they went to the play instead of just reading the book.

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