ATLANTA — For two quarters in Thursday's 34-10 victory in the preseason opener at the Georgia Dome, Bengals backup quarterback Josh Johnson, late of the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the on-again, off-again UFL, put together all his ample skills in leading Cincinnati to its first 20 points as the club's leading passer and rusher of the night.
The 6-3, 205-pound Johnson sprinted 43 yards off a scramble to set up Mike Nugent's 32-yard field goal. Then his big arm blistered a 21-yard touchdown pass between two defenders to wide receiver Brandon Tate before setting up another touchdown when he rifled a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Ryan Whalen perfectly leading him into the right sideline on third-and-14.
"I was impressed overall with what he did out there," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "We know he can make plays with his legs, but throwing the ball is how a quarterback has to make a living in this league, and it was a real nice play to Brandon Tate."
But Johnson's comfort in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's system allowed him to rely on said legs.
"They were playing a match coverage where they thought they had all their routes covered, but no one had me," Johnson said. "It's just enough to give the defense something to worry about."
As if his heater isn't enough to worry about. In throwing just 55 NFL passes the past three seasons (and none last year), the knock on the 27-year-old Johnson is that he's got a great arm but you never know where the ball is going. But on Thursday he completed nine of his 16 passes for 100 yards while generating 64 more yards on the ground.
In his college career at San Diego he set the FCS record for passing efficiency with 176.68.
"Our coaches do a great job fitting us and giving us all the tools necessary to be successful," Johnson said. "It's about going out there and executing."
Gruden was on the Tampa Bay staff as an offensive assistant when the Buccaneers took him in the fifth round in the 2008 draft and it wasn't lost on Johnson that his head coach that year, Jon Gruden, was calling the game for ESPN.
"It's coming along real well. Being exposed to it my rookie year, I was able to be familiar with the language," Johnson said of the Grudens' West Coast offense. "There are some things we do here that are different than we did in Tampa, but Jay goes a great job. I have a lot of respect for Jon. He taught me a lot. I learned tremendously from him in just the one year I spent with him."
You can see that comfort on third down. Two snaps after his big run, Johnson scrambled for 14 more on third-and-seven to set up the Nugent field goal.
He set up the touchdown pass to Tate with a third-and-eight "go" throw down the left sideline on which rookie wide receiver Cobi Hamilton drew a 31-yard pass interference penalty.
After the third-down bullet to Whalen set up the first half's final score, Johnson found Whalen again over the middle on third-and-six, and a great second effort got the first down that led to rookie Quinn Sharp's 47-yard field goal that made it 20-10 with 5:02 left in the third quarter.
It was Johnson's grasp of the offense that gave him the edge for the backup job coming into Thursday's game and despite John Skelton's textbook 36-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, it still is.
"So far the arrow has been pointing up for me in the (comfort) of the offense and I'm trying to keep it going," Johnson said.