The Bengals Master Mechanic rolls out his latest model Saturday for the Paul Brown Stadium 7 p.m. preseason opener (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Titans come to town.
Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese's sleek and saucy project goes by the name of Josh Johnson, the leader-in-the-clubhouse to be Andy Dalton's backup after last week's old school effort in Atlanta in which he led the Bengals in passing with a 95.8 rating and rushing with 64 yards.
Johnson is still in a wrestling match because John Skelton also lit it up with a lights-out fourth quarter. Skelton's 17 starts in Arizona over the past three seasons make him a known commodity while during that same stretch Johnson has thrown 52 passes and took a detour into the UFL.
But this week Johnson emerged from Zampese's bay of tools with confirmation that it's the most comfortable he's felt since he singed the college record books in 2007 with a 176.68 passing efficiency highlighted by 43 touchdown passes.
"Just the coaching. Everything that's gone into it," Johnson said this week. "I like where I am at this point. Everything I went through in the past is a great learning experience.
"Zamp has helped me a lot. He's had me change my mechanics from what they've been in the past. They're a lot better in regards to me not making it hard with certain throws in the pocket. It allows me to use my arm to my advantage making certain throws by having my body in certain positions."
When the 6-3, 205-pound Johnson arrived in the spring, he found that Zampese had cut up all of his 177 NFL passes with Tampa Bay as well as all 25 of his throws with the 49ers in last year's preseason. To show his appreciation, Johnson bought into what Zampese had found. A stunning athlete with cornerback speed and a first-round arm, Johnson is trying to lift a career 54.2 completion percentage.
Zampese has turned Johnson from a tall pocket passer with a narrow base by widening his foundation with more space between his feet and shortening his stride.
"It's not like I've never been accurate," Johnson said. "It's just my body position in the pocket allowed defenders to get up on me and I had to alter my throws a lot. Here, I'm more ready to get the ball out on time quicker and if a defender is in my face I'm able to move a lot quicker with my body position. That's the coaching Zamp has given me."
Zampese doesn't rip up mechanics. He figures the engine has already come off a pro assembly line, so he is simply looking to add a piece here or yank out an element there. His approach is to isolate one or two issues (with Johnson it was his base/stance) and go from there.
"There are certain things consistent with anybody's mechanics that if you do them well, it doesn't matter what your stroke is; you'll be OK," Zampese said. "The stroke was good enough to get you here in the first place. A lot of times it's how do we get it to happen faster and from the time you decide to throw it to the time you actually throw it, how do we speed up that process mechanically?
"That's more balance. Where your weight is positioned and how you carry the ball a little bit."It's just, 'Do a little more of this, do a little less of that. Feel the difference?' "
Johnson apparently can. He was only 56.3 percent against the Falcons, but he was big on third down and his 21-yard TD pass to wide receiver Brandon Tate perfectly split two defenders. And Wednesday's practice was a lot like his others, when he was 8-for-11 in 11-on-11 and threw the day's prettiest ball, a 50-yard floater to wide receiver Taveon Rogers.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden pushed to sign Johnson in the offseason. As a member of the Tampa Bay staff that took Johnson in the fifth round in 2008 out of San Diego, Gruden has always loved the guy's arm and legs and grasp of the West Coast offense's concepts. He agrees it's the most comfortable he's seen Johnson in the pros.
"It's the first time where he's been a focal point," Gruden said. "He's not the fourth guy, he's not the fifth guy. He's not the third. He's vying for No. 2 and you'll get quality reps. ... You'd like to see him keep up the good habits in the game. Footwork and all those good things. When you see him put the ball down and run, that's something not everybody can do.
"I think he's got enough positive qualities as a quarterback that we can develop and work with that he can be an effective backup."
All Johnson has to do is look across the field Saturday night and see an effective backup in the person of former Bengal Ryan Fitzpatrick, now the backup for Tennessee's Jake Locker. Johnson has never met him but he says, "I follow quarterbacks," so he knows Fitzpatrick's story. He admits he's trying to get to where the 30-year-old Fitzpatrick is now after nine years in the league.
"He went to Harvard, a small school like me. Came here and backed up and then went to Buffalo to back up Trent (Edwards)," Johnson said. "Then he got his opportunity, took advantage of it, got a nice contract and established himself as a quarterback. So he'll have a job as long as he wants.
"That's what we're all trying to do. We're all trying to establish ourselves and make a long career out of it."
With the Titans first group expected to go 30 plays and the Bengals starters figured to work the first half, the second half probably comes down to a duel between Johnson and Skelton and Fitzpatrick. The Bengals courted Fitzpatrick heavily to return to back up Dalton during the NFL meetings back in March in Fitzpatrick's home territory of Phoenix. But with Locker fighting injury and inconsistency, his hold on the starting job isn't as tight as Dalton's.
Dalton and the No. 1s are looking at a refurbished Titans defense that is supposed to be better after allowing a franchise-worst 471 points last season.
Two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and friends are looking at a Tennessee offense that is going to pound it with a pair of new guards in first round-pick Chance Warmack and veteran free-agent pickup Andy Levitre. The Titans have also added former Jets running back Shonn Greene, and Chris Johnson looks to be back to his old ways with a 58-yard TD run on his second carry of the season last week against Washington.
Don't look for Cincinnati's A.J. Green, Andrew Whitworth, Michael Johnson or Carlos Dunlap to play. And there seems to be some concern that fourth-round pick Sean Porter's shoulder has suffered a significant injury but it's not clear how significant. Indications are he won't play Saturday, which means those young linebackers like Jayson DiManche and J.K. Schaffer are going to get even more snaps.