Michael Johnson pressures Dallas quarterback Stephen McGee in last Sunday's Hall of Fame Game. (AP photo)
GEORGETOWN, Ky. - The Michael Johnson Experiment has officially turned into the Michael Johnson Watch.
Sunday's 7 p.m. game against the Broncos (11:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) begins the Who Dey version of Where's Waldo? Welcome to Paul Brown Stadium's new lottery game.
As in, are the Bengals watching the emergence of something big-time special?
After his first game ever at SAM linebacker last Sunday night in which he had two sacks at two different positions and easily could have had four on a night he played three different spots in varying packages, the Bengals have to be asking themselves if they finally have a match for Terrell Suggs in Baltimore and James Harrison in Pittsburgh. Will Johnson help allow defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to out-Rex the Jets with a player that suffocates opponents with an intoxicating blend of versatility?
"You can't match him up to anybody yet. First of all, he has to become who he is first," says linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald. "He's not there yet."
But his 6-7, 266-pound frame is gobbling up a lot of ground quickly. And if you can't match up Johnson with any name yet, you can certainly say he gives draft nicks a bad one. Johnson fell to the Bengals in the third round last year because teams questioned his motor and toughness and those are two things that have turned an offseason blueprint into a training camp delight.
When Zimmer, FitzGerald and assistant linebackers coach Paul Guenther drew up Johnson's transition from end to SAM after a promising rookie year, the questions were obvious.
Could a man so tall be able to play so low to take on the run while being nimble enough to drop into pass coverage against tight ends and running backs?
Why are these men smiling?
"We're smiling because he allows us to do so many different things," says FitzGerald, who coached versatile vixens like Suggs and Adalius Thomas in Baltimore. "He's a smart kid and he's athletic as all get out. That's why we're smiling."
Play downhill against the run?
"There aren't many big, tall linebackers that play behind the line of scrimmage like we do," Zimmer says. "He did a nice job of that. It's all about leverage and he got his pads low. He hit the guard good one time. He hit the fullback one time."
Back up against the pass?
"He's good in coverage for the most part," Zimmer says.
Is he versatile enough?
"He played more defensive end in the game than he did in camp on first and second down," Zimmer says. "We've been playing him there in the nickel, but he did a good job in the regular package."
Is he smart enough?
No. 1 in his class at Dallas County High School just outside Selma, Ala., and a Georgia Tech degree. Before he had his first of three NFL sacks last season, Johnson had one commencement address to his credit when he came back home to speak after the draft.
"What's really amazing," says FitzGerald, "is the knee bend for a guy that tall with that ability to strike."
Even the two missed sacks had people smiling. Except Johnson. One on a stunt in the line and one on a backer blitz.
"I ran a twist and didn't take the extra step and the dude got away from me out of the pocket," says Johnson of the play at end. "(On the blitz) I chopped my feet instead of just going and shooting. I knew it as soon as I did it. I messed up. The one thing I can say is that I didn't let my bad plays get me down. One sack came before and one came after."
No wonder FitzGerald offers, "He's a pleasure to coach. He's 100 percent bought in," which is making a lot of NFL scouts look bad these days.
Of course, it's hard to remind people of Suggs and Thomas if you can't get on the field. After starting in place of the injured Rey Maualuga at SAM last Sunday, it looks like Johnson will start this Sunday's game on the bench with Maualuga's hamstring healed. But if Johnson is conjuring up images of AFC North beasts past and present, somebody must be wondering if Cincinnati's three best linebackers are Maualuga in the middle with Johnson at SAM and Keith Rivers at WILL.
Zimmer isn't wondering at all because he has so much faith in middle linebacker Dhani Jones. With Maualuga missing a chunk of practice last week as well as the game, Zimmer is adamant about sticking with his lineup.
"I look at the best 11; it may not be the best three," Zimmer says. "I have to have the best 11, not the best three. Dhani controls the other 10. Until somebody can start controlling the other guys, he's the guy. It's hard to tell if they can do it if they're missing practice."
Zimmer says he hopes Maualuga "can do it," but until then Maualuga will play the middle in certain packages while Johnson could show up anywhere.
"I think linebacker has helped me out playing end because I understand the defense better," Johnson says. "Where everybody is fitting. Where my help is. Where the linebackers fit, where the safeties fit.
"You get to see a lot more of what's going on when you've got to read more keys (at linebacker). That's fun. You can get a running start before you hit people. You've got more air to play in space, you can cover more ground, you can see more."
The coaches want to see more. Zimmer noticed a few bad run fits Sunday night. FitzGerald is working tirelessly on Johnson's technique, which he says has a long way to go. Zimmer wants Johnson to play more reckless. He's thinking about the blown sack on the blitz.
"It was almost like he got confused and stopped," Zimmer says.
Invited to the Pro Bowl by one of his players turned into a yearly jaunt for FitzGerald when he was coaching Rex Ryan's linebackers in Baltimore. One year all four went. It sounds like he thinks an invitation from Johnson isn't close to getting embossed just yet.
"He's obviously not there yet with those guys. He's got a lot of grass to make up," FitzGerald says. "(Suggs) is a rare talent like Michael with the size and talent to match. It's exciting. His heart is in the right place. As long as he keeps the work ethic going the way it is right now, we have a chance to get something done in an accelerated period of time."
It must be nice coming to the yard at age 23 knowing you could play anywhere any time. Even if you're starting or not.
"Where I play and when I play, I don't worry about that other stuff," Johnson says. "Wherever I play is going to be fun."
Go ahead. Try it.