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'Jeremi's Journey'

Jeremi Johnson

Posted: 10:15 p.m.

You know you got to go through hell
Before you get to heaven
--Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner"

Bengals-Ravens, 1 p.m. Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. One of those AFC North games that means everything. A win and the Bengals beat the Ravens in any tiebreaking scenario. A loss and the Bengals are back to the pack.

Heaven or hell.

This is one of the games why the Bengals last year stayed in touch with Jeremi Johnson, the one-time Pro Bowl alternate fullback that has been to both heaven and hell.

This downhill, gut-busting matchup of all-out blitzes and outsized players is why Bengals president Mike Brown never crossed Johnson off his 2009 roster even when he wasn't on it.

Ravens-Bengals is one of the reasons why Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis monitored the efforts of running backs coach Jim Anderson, associate strength coach Ray Oliver, and agent Peter Schaffer earlier this year in the hopes of salvaging one of the most promising Bengals careers of the decade.

Cincinnati-Baltimore. Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco vs. Ray Lewis-Ed Reed. It was a very big reason the Bengals re-signed Johnson to a one-year deal right before the '09 draft. Just five months after they cut him.

"Not the guys that knew that he was a dominant player," quarterback Carson Palmer said Monday when asked if players were surprised the Bengals brought Johnson back. "Yeah, he's 100 percent. ... There's really not anything more you could get out of a fullback, except maybe a play on special teams."

Sunday is why Johnson is sucking up the pain of the sprained knee he got against the Bears eight days ago and says he'll be ready.

"I need these types of games," he said.

Although Johnson blocked for one of the NFL's best stories this season last week when running back Cedric Benson ran for 180 yards against his old friends from Chicago, he may be carving out the best NFL's Comeback of the Year story.

"I've got nothing to prove. I'm just playing football. I'm out here," Johnson said Monday after practice. "I've done the impossible. Came back. Done things. Been successful. I'm just enjoying life right now."

Left for NFL dead around last Thanksgiving when the Bengals cut him in a season he couldn't play because of a knee injury, Johnson has turned out to be one of the most indispensible players in offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's new scheme after a year off. With the losses of tight end Reggie Kelly and Ben Utecht in the first week of training camp, Johnson's role has expanded to part-time tight end.

"It allows me to do a lot of different things; things I haven't done before," Johnson said. "Allows me to show my versatility. Blocking off the line. Coming out of the backfield blocking. A lot of guys couldn't do that that have played football their whole life. Allowing me to do things that no other fullbacks in the league do, that teams don't allow them to do. I'm thankful. I'm happy for that.

"Doing things that tight ends do. Motioning. Being a true fullback. I'm enjoying it. Showing them I can do more than one thing."

At the same time, daughter Jai RayAnn Johnson continues to be the most indispensible inspiration of what Bengals right guard Bobbie Williams calls "Jeremi's Journey."

"I want to be successful for her. I want to continue to be successful," Johnson said. "It makes it fun. A lot of fun. It makes it enjoyable."

On Monday, a very cute photo of Jai framed by two small candles beamed down from the shelf of Johnson's locker as her usually taciturn dad happily doled out some facts about the Halloween night birthday party celebrating her first birthday even though it was Oct. 27.

It was a family affair and everyone, including her dad, her grandmother, and Jai herself had costumes. Johnson had picked out her outfit, one that changed from devil to angel complete with pitchfork.

Heaven or hell.

"Yeah, I've seen both sides," Johnson admitted. "I was Bigfoot. I had a Bigfoot costume. Scared the kids. I didn't put it on until late at night. Everyone had there's on during the day. I got mine on when it got dark. When the kids started coming around."

He truly was the Bigfoot of fullbacks shortly after the 2005 season, when Schaffer negotiated a deal that made Johnson the NFL's richest fullback (a $1.5 million average) and kept him in Cincinnati through 2011. And in '06 he came through with that first alternate Pro Bowl season.

"He just layed out people for Rudi (Johnson)," Bobbie Williams said. "I mean, he would just lay them out. He was a big reason Rudi got a lot of yards. He's overcome a lot. Physically. Emotionally. That's a credit to him."

Johnson's weight issues have gone out with next morning's recycling. Suffice to say the Bengals lost patience after he injured his knee the week of the '08 opener following another crash course when they needed bodies and felt the weight was the reason for the injury.

But even though he was gone, the club made sure he was not forgotten.

"Jim Anderson and Ray Oliver kept tabs with him," Bratkowski said. "At the same time, we were taking care of our business here, so we had moved on. But I think Jim and Ray kept tabs on him."

When the Bengals couldn't get a veteran fullback in free agency and weren't sure they could get one in the draft, they covered themselves with the one-year deal to Johnson.

"We talked to him, met with him and he was going in the right direction," Anderson said. "He merited the chance and he's continuing to do really good things."

He had a very big backer, too.

"Mike (Brown) has always loved the kid and he was a big factor," Schaffer said Monday from Colorado. "I can't give you percentages, but all throughout the process, Jim Anderson and Marvin and Katie and Troy (Blackburn) kept in touch with us. We got calls from other teams, but I think Jeremi felt grateful that the Bengals kept in touch.

"That was part of it, but the other part was that Jeremi had to do it, and to his credit he fought through in training camp. It's great to see how he's matured not only on the field, but off the field. I'm so happy because he is one of the most truly genuine, sincere guys you'll meet in the NFL."

Still, it was a rough start. It didn't go unnoticed that the Bengals gave newly-acquired safety Roy Williams his No. 31. Plus, the kid they drafted, seventh-rounder Fui Vakapuna, and a kid that was on the practice squad in '08, J.D. Runnels Jr., were ahead of him on the depth chart. After training camp they were both gone. And free agent Chris Pressley, on the practice squad until Tampa Bay nabbed him last week, is also gone.

Johnson's training-camp grit has turned into a big staple of another playoff run in Bratkowski's heavily-edited playbook fraught with the Kelly and Utecht deletions. The only blocker left to clear a path in the 100-yard rushing games of Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson, the experience is more than priceless.

"He's doing some things up on the line of scrimmage a little bit as opposed to being in the backfield," Bratkowski. "Really with the situation we are in when we go into games, we are going in with two tight ends and one fullback. That whole thing with two tight ends and one fullback and that dynamic is that the tight ends have to play fullback for some of the things and the fullback has to play tight end for some of the things. Or for us to maintain a certain package if we get an injury. It really has to do with who you can suit up. The tight ends have to be able to do a limited amount of fullback work and the fullback has to be able to do a limited amount of tight end work. If we've got something in a package it doesn't die on the vine if someone gets hurt."  

Remember that Tennessee game in the second week of last season when Utecht was lost on the second snap with a bruised chest and the double tight-end sets were virtually scrubbed? Johnson, and the fact that tight end Daniel Coats played fullback last year, have helped alleviate that potential problem, but mainly it has helped out the inexperienced tight ends.

Johnson may be only playing about 35 percent of the snaps, much less than, say, wide receiver Chris Henry's 60 percent. But they are critical plays. Short-yardage. Goal-line. A lot of times, on third down. When the Bengals needed a big body to fend off the monstrous Steelers pass rushers, Bratkowski played Johnson in front of running back Brian Leonard on passing downs until the final drive when Leonard helped win the game with a fourth-and-10 conversion catch. Johnson's versatility is a big reason the Bengals lead the NFL in touchdown percentage in the red zone at 69.6 percent.

"His role has really expanded and he's embraced it," Anderson said. "He's getting better each day. He knows what he has to do and it's been great to see him embrace the new responsibilities."

It's tempting to say when Johnson was in top form - 2005 and 2006 - the offense put up a lot of yards. And when he wasn't in '07 and '08, it didn't.

"If you go back to some of the years that we were rolling pretty good on offense, he was having good years, I'd think that's safe to say. He was staying healthy and in good shape," Bratkowski said. "There are times where it's very important to have a fullback. Then there are times where you can work around it if you don't have one, but you certainly hate to be in a game without one.

"In this division, it is important to have a good, solid physical blocker."

Just ask Palmer. Johnson, Williams and The Ocho are the only blockers left from the 24-point fourth quarter in Baltimore in '04 in Palmer's first season as the starter.

"He knows how to block Ray (Lewis). He knows what to do when he's one-on-one with Terrell Suggs," Palmer said. "He knows the zone blitz scheme. He knows the type of game he's getting into against Cleveland. Downhill, nasty.

"There's something to be said about this division. To me, this is the best division in football. They talk about the NFC East, the AFC East. But look at Baltimore (beating) Denver. Look at Pittsburgh (beating) Minnesota. We've got good teams in this division and we've got a guy (Johnson) that knows how to play those teams and plays well against those teams. It's great to have that guy on the team."

Johnson never thought the Ravens defense left the building this season.

"Same old Baltimore defense," said Johnson after watching its victory over Denver. "Smashmouth. They're going to let you come in and then lock the door and do what they want to do with you. That's the type of defense they are and that's how you have to approach them. You've got to strike them first. If you let them strike first against you, it's going to be a long day if you do."

"You've got to bring your A game every single time," he said of his matchup with Ray Lewis. "Because if you bring a B-plus game, he's going to make you look stupid. Everybody knows that."

Which is why he's here for Sunday.

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