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Filling sacks

Michael Johnson

Posted: 11:25 p.m.

All eyes are on Antwan Odom's immediate replacement at right end, battle-tested Jon Fanene, and heir apparent, rookie Michael Johnson.

But defensive tackle Tank Johnson is trying to set a gritty, professional and purely unemotional example to a defensive line group that is suddenly decimated by the season-long loss of Odom, the NFL sack leader, and the questionable status of the defensive co-captain, tackle Domata Peko.

They may not have past NFL sacks to replace Odom, but the Bengals have guys willing to play despite getting sacked. 

"The the fact I'm standing on two good legs, it's a blessing," Johnson said Monday. "Guys are banged up and we're going to pick each other up."

The Bengals have dodged a bullet with Peko. Indications are there is nothing torn in his left knee but there is bad enough bruising that he may be out this Sunday. That would give him an extra week with the Nov. 1 bye to be ready for Baltimore Nov. 8. But end Frostee Rucker is dealing with a sprained ankle and tackle Pat Sims has a nicked-up arm, according to head coach Marvin Lewis' Monday injury report.

Not to mention Tank Johnson, who played with a painful case of plantar fasciitis Sunday that was made much more painful because he had to play more snaps than planned when Peko went down on the third snap of the day.

Expect another defensive lineman to be signed Tuesday.

With Michael Johnson (0 NFL sacks) and Rucker (1) backing up Fanene (4), the Bengals could be looking to get another tackle since they already have four ends. With Peko hobbled and the other two tackles, Tank Johnson and Sims, nicked, the Bengals could activate Clinton McDonald from the practice squad or look elsewhere.

All eyes are on Tank Johnson this week, too, because he's pitted against the Bears team that drafted him in the second round in 2004 and he helped get to the Super Bowl in 2006 despite problems with the law that led to his release in June 2007 and a two-year stint in Dallas. It would be a nice moment to get his first Bengals sack.

But Johnson's skin crawls when he hears the questions asked about the Bengals' lack of emotion on Sunday, or the emotional rollercoaster they've been on the last month, and he's certainly not going to get emotional over playing the Bears for the first time.

"Why is everybody so emotional?" he asked. "I'm not an emotional type guy. Sundays I just play and at the end of the game I just hope we're on the plus side."

Truth be told, Johnson thought there were more logical reasons why the Bengals gave up so many yards to the Texans. He felt they needed more effort when it came to tackling and what he called their "uncharacteristic" mental errors belied their pride in being a "hard-try bunch."

If the Bengals are going to get on Johnson's plus side, they have to compensate for the loss of Odom's NFL-best eight sacks. He was one away from becoming just the sixth Bengal in the last 20 seasons to get more than eight sacks, but the next one won't be until next year as he begins rehabbing from Monday's surgery for a torn Achilles.

Indications are the surgery went as planned and with a six-month rehab period Odom should be ready for the start of the May camps. How effective he'll be isn't known because it is such a delicate injury and many haven't come back as strong. But given he just turned only 28 a few weeks ago should help him.

It's a crushing blow to the guy that just a few weeks ago became the first Bengals defensive lineman in a generation to be named AFC Defensive Player of the Month.

What the Bengals do know is that Fanene gets the call to start in Odom's place. Fanene's sack on Sunday gave him three for the season, or triple his career total coming into this, his fifth season. But he's a lot of admirers in the Bengals locker room for his toughness and perseverance.

"Jon has probably improved as much as any football player I've been around in the National Football League, from the time we got him until now," said head coach Marvin Lewis of the man the Bengals took in the last round of the 2005 draft. "He doesn't always do things exactly the way it's supposed to be. In fact, he got a sack yesterday on an error, but he got a sack. He kept coming and he made the best out of it. 

"Jon hadn't played a lot of football prior to going to the University of Utah, so he's probably got more time in the NFL than he had prior to that in football. He keeps learning, he keeps getting better. I think his aptitude for the game, his ability to learn and understand about tendencies offensively, is very good."

Fanene doesn't say much, but Lewis has watched him in the defensive meeting rooms and has watched coordinator Mike Zimmer purposefully pepper him with questions to get him more vocal and Lewis has been impressed how easily Fanene answers without being nervous.

"Fanene's a good player," Johnson said. "He's a very tough, very hard-nosed football player. You really can't say what one thing he does well because he does everything full speed and he's physical."

But Johnson knows what a unique and perfect build the long, lean Odom brings to the pass-rushing role.

"You don't replace AO. Antwan has done things no one has done. He's a great player. A great asset to our defense," Johnson said. "The most important thing for the guy that fills in for him is to know what he's supposed to do. Antwan has a lot of natural ability. He can reach over five people and grab you with his long arms. But the other guys just have to get to the same spot and work from there."

Michael Johnson, the 6-7, 266-pounder, has the same build as Odom and has just as many bountiful physical blessings.

"He has a lot of unique physical gifts, and he has the mental ability to handle it and see what happens," Lewis said. "The veteran players have been good mentors for him. He's been in good shape and position.

Mike Johnson has been used mainly on third down as a wild card rusher or linebacker but Lewis says he'll now get more work on first and second down. Fanene, as well as Rucker, can move inside on passing downs.

Yet while Tank admires Mike and has been one of his mentors, a rookie is a rookie and the NFL sack leader is the NFL sack leader.

"You can't replace A.O and you really can't speed up the maturation process," Tank said. "He has to go through his bumps and bruises and learn how to be a full-time D-end in this league.

"He's a rookie. He's a good player. He has a long way to go before he can be an every down D-end in this league. But he's athletic, he comes to work every day and he wants to get better. I feel like if he continues to take to coaching and he grows every day and not take mental setbacks when guys get on him, then he'll be all right."

If it sounds like Terry Johnson is as straightforward as his nickname, Tank is. Asked about his own pain, he hissed through his teeth and said it is a difficult injury for down lineman because of how important the push is off foot.

"I'm going to find a way to play and keep the integrity of this defense sound in the middle," he said. "If they do get a bead on me then I'm going to be three yards back in the backfield making that running back bubble."

Since he has no emotions to wear on his sleeve, Johnson is going into Sunday's game bare-armed and simply saying he's looking forward to competing against the players and coaches he knew in Chicago.

He is excited about playing against one guy: Bears perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz. Kreutz, 32, has five years on Johnson but Johnson says they bonded in Chicago through their Washington State pedigree and remain close.

"We talked just before training camp; we're close friends," he said. "I haven't gone against him in a long time (since Bears practices), but I'm really looking forward to it. The guy's a Hall of Famer."

So maybe there is some emotion deep in the Tank.   

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