After a couple of years of waiting in the weeds, the Bengals draft class of 2009 is starting to have an impact and reared its head several times in Thursday's 24-13 preseason win over the visiting Panthers.
It has some way to go to catch up to the '10 class, and the '11 group with A.J. Green and Andy Dalton could dwarf them both. But three solid classes in a row could crown the youth movement that begin in the final days of last season and was reluctantly fast-forwarded with Carson Palmer's retirement.
No. 1 pick Andre Smith continues to stay healthy and while his play needs more snap-to-snap consistency, he had a hand in the Bengals moving Carolina around for 191 yards on the ground.
Second-round pick Rey Maualuga continues to show he's a natural middle linebacker and flew around for enough pops that in the first half the Bengals allowed vaunted running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart 15 yards on eight carries after Williams' 18-yard run on his first carry.
And third-rounder Michael Johnson is coming off an impressive four-day stretch at right end in which he made hay against 2010 Pro Bowl tackles in the Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson and the Panthers' Jordan Gross.
Johnson didn't have a sack but he's been a big factor in the first defense allowing 55 yards rushing on 22 carries by backs in the last two games, as well as making some impressive rushes against the pass.
"I'm trying some new things; the preseason is the time to do it," said Johnson, not looking to give up any secrets. "Hopefully the sacks are getting saved for the regular season."
The rest of the '09 class has also flexed its muscles this week. Punter Kevin Huber, the fifth-rounder, has been one of the team's most improved players. Seventh-rounder Clinton McDonald has played well enough to move into the defensive tackle rotation.
And while the cornerback situation is unsettled as the club looks to other rosters for help, sixth-rounder Morgan Trent has recovered from last season's knee injury to stake his claim to the third corner job he had as a rookie. Running back Bernard Scott, the other sixth-rounder, looks to be on the verge of a breakout year with 63 yards on just six carries in his 2011 debut Thursday.
The other third-rounder, tight end Chase Coffman, may end up on the Opening Day roster after spending the first part of last season on the practice squad. The fear is that Bo Scaife suffered a season-ending shoulder injury Thursday, which would open the receiving spot for Coffman behind starter Jermaine Gresham if the Bengals decide to stay pat with a guy that knows the system.
(Free agent rookie tight end Colin Cochart just may make it now because of his blocking and the fact the Bengals doubt he'd get through waivers to make the practice squad.)
Plus, the Bengals got a big-time game Thursday out of a college free agent from that class in Chris Pressley. Since becoming a star on HBO's Hard Knocks in that '09 training camp, Pressley has been recycled through the practice squad and Tampa Bay, but on Thursday he delivered enough hard knocks as the No. 1 fullback plowing paths for running back Cedric Benson that he may have just won the job. The Bengals coaches believe it is his best game of the year when it comes to technique and the results are splattered all over the video like bowling pins.
The frequent presence of Pressley highlights is one of the major contrasts in the offense used by Jay Gruden compared to what had been used in the recent past. The Bengals, who were often a three-receiver team as of late, now use two backs much more frequently.
On the two key plays of the first Bengals touchdown drive—fourth-and-one from the Panthers 13 and a third-and-goal from the 1—Pressley came up big. He got a helmet on the safety each snap and Benson rattled for a total of 10 yards.
Johnson has teamed with '10 product Geno Atkins to form a formidable punch up front on that right side. Atkins, one of the NFL leaders for sacks by a rookie tackle with three, got a bunch of pressure on Panthers quarterback Cam Newton with the help of Johnson.
"As the game goes, we try to see what the tackles and guards are doing and we're always talking," Atkins said. "We had a few stunts and a few games, and we got some pressure on him. We're just trying to have fun out there."
Johnson showed some strength inside and Atkins some speed on the outside when they looped a few times. The line collapsed the pocket from the middle a few times, just enough to harass Newton through 3-for-12 passing in the first half with pretty much pressure from just the front four.
"We let him get outside contain a few times, but we did want to make him move back there," Atkins said. "He's new to the league and we were hoping we could make him pull the ball down or make him get rid of it quickly."
Consider it done. Johnson is sensing the same momentum the line finished with last season (when Johnson, Atkins and left end Carlos Dunlap combined for 14 sacks in the last eight games) and he says it helps he has stayed at end and not dabbled at SAM backer like did in the spring of '10.
"I just feel a lot more confident and comfortable this year," Johnson said. "I played a lot last year and I'm hoping it's paying off."