Bengals prep for opener with best of both worlds

Captain Michael Johnson.
Captain Michael Johnson.

The Bengals head into Sunday's opener in Indy (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) tipping about as much balance as you can get with one of the NFL's biggest spending teams matched with one of the league's youngest rosters.

After their teammates voted them offensive co-captains for the first time in their eight seasons Monday, the team now officially belonging to A.J. Green and Andy Dalton has what defensive co-captain Michael Johnson called "a lot of captains with different styles." That will happen when the average years of NFL experience for the offensive and defensive starters are about five with the offense at 4.7 and the defense 5.2.

"It might be five years, but it's probably five (years) times 16 (games)," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "So whatever that is. They've played a lot of NFL football. It's not like they've stood around. They've been out there and playing."

The return of the 31-year-old Johnson after his one-day hiatus over the weekend restored the not-so-young Bengals to second youngest in NFL average age and into the top ten of salary cap spending in 2018 with his $5 million deal. Including benefits paid out in 2018, meet your $200 million Bengals. The Johnson deal also gave Lewis comfort that he's got one of his sentries.

"He's been one of the pillars of this football team throughout (his tenure)," Lewis said. "We have some younger guys, but his play on Sundays and his preparation during the week is great for this football team and for the defense. He's been a great leader, and still is day in and day out."

So has linebacker Vincent Rey, named a captain once again. Rey is a valued defensive handyman and special teams maven. In the kicking game, it used to be him and Dan Skuta and then it was him and Cedric Peerman. But now it is him and Clayton Fejedelem. And Fejedelem is one of these guys Lewis is talking about. As he starts his third NFL season, he just turned 25 and has already played 32 games, made five starts, has 22 teams tackles, nearly went to the Pro Bowl last season and was voted a captain Monday. Or Rey looks at his position room and sees a guy like third-year linebacker Nick Vigil who led the team in snaps and tackles last season when he went down with a season-ending ankle injury in the 11th game.

"People say Nick Vigil is a young guy," Rey said. "Nick Vigil has made a lot of plays in this league, so I wouldn't call him a young guy."

Young guy? Fejedelem and Jackson are old enough to both play in the last opener the Bengals won on the road in 2016. They won the 9/11 game in Jersey against the Jets in their NFL debuts and there are still 20 guys on the roster that played in that game Mike Nugent won on a 47-yard field goal with 54 seconds left. Nugent's not here. But the guy who snapped it (Clark Harris) and held it (Kevin Huber) are.

And five guys who touched the ball in that first half of the season (Dalton, Green, running back Giovani Bernard wide receiver Tyler Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah), are here. And so is a raft of defenders that made big plays in that fourth quarter.

Clayton Fejedelem became a special teams captain Monday.
Clayton Fejedelem became a special teams captain Monday.

Tackle Geno Atkins dropped Matt Forte on second-and-one from the 1 to hold the Jets to a field goal. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick helped make sure Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall had no catches in the fourth quarter. With five minutes left, Johnson helped hold Forte to a three-yard run on first down in the red zone. Strong safety Shawn Williams, Johnson's co-captain on defense, helped make a tackle on third-and three from the 8 with 3:25 left to force a field goal that let Nugent win it. Left end Carlos Dunlap pressured old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick into an incompletion on that last drive.  

Like the man said. They haven't been standing around.

"To me, it's similar to '12," said Johnson of the mix and veterans on the defensive line that posted the team sacks record for a 10-6 team that made the playoffs. "Keep everyone fresh, I'm looking forward to it."

Green and Dalton, both 30, are the oldest guys on offense, but they can turn to some middle-aged guys like Bernard, tight end Tyler Eifert and Boyd to mix with kids like sophomore regulars Joe Mixon at running back and John Ross at wide receiver.

"The class from last year is still feeling its way through it, with John Ross and Joe Mixon in particular, who were taken at the top," Lewis said. "Jordan Evans, Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson, and Brandon Wilson … some of those guys are more mature and handle some of the day-to-day things more than others.

"We have that group of guys that have played a lot of football, and we have a young group coming behind them, and their contributions over the last two or three years is quite a bit," Lewis said. "Then we have the (inexperienced) young guys, who will make positive impressions this season. I'm excited about that."

Then there is Johnson, the man of the hour, symbolic of the culture Lewis has built and protected. His first free-agent signing as a head coach in 2003 was a defensive tackle named John Thornton with a sterling locker-room rep. When linemen like Domata Peko, Robert Geathers and Frostee Rucker arrived, Thornton showed them how to be pros. Thornton was gone when Johnson arrived, but he wasn't really because Geathers and the rest passed it on. Thornton ended up becoming Johnson's agent and he brought him back from Tampa in 2015 and Sunday.

On Monday he was honored to be voted a captain.

"I try to do things right. When I first came here, I saw guys that did it the right way," Johnson said. "They had success and our team has success. The most important thing is the team having success."

Dalton admitted he's been reading about the Bengals being the NFL's youngest team. But after watching Atkins and Dunlap pull down a combined $110 million in extensions last week and then seeing Green be able to put a "C," on his gold jacket of a career on Monday, he talked about "a good veteran presence."

"Whenever people take ownership in something bigger than themselves," Johnson said, "that's when you can do great things."

That's a team that sounds older than it is.