Johnson steps up and in

11-20-03, 7:30 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Lorenzo Neal is still in the Bengals' meeting rooms, where rookie Jeremi Johnson has been quietly watching him play even though he went to San Diego a month before they drafted Johnson in the fourth round.

Thanks to the magic supplied by video directors Travis Brammer and Kent Stearman, Johnson is walking around with a CD of Neal, the incumbent AFC Pro Bowl fullback Johnson has replaced so well in the Bengals starting lineup.

"He's the best at his position and I'm trying to learn from everything," Johnson said before Wednesday's practice. "It will be good to see him in person this week, to see how he starts a game."

The Bengals say they miss Neal's intangibles and they probably missed his blocking early on. But not much has been said about that lately, particularly in the last two weeks when they have rushed for 440 yards.

"Jeremi may be the surprise of this football team because everyone was so overwhelmed we lost Lorenzo," said right tackle Willie Anderson. "But to have a rookie come in and step in and do the things Jeremi Johnson has done. . .The reason this running game is working is the linemen are getting a push and Jeremi Johnson is singled up with a linebacker. He's putting his 260 (pounds), or whatever he is, and moving him as a rookie."

Probably closer to 270, but Johnson's rise is another reason why running backs coach Jim Anderson carries a lot of weight in the coaching profession. In his 20th season with the club, Anderson may be having a career year as backup Rudi Johnson bids to become the team's fifth different 1,000-yard rusher in Anderson's tenure and the lead blocker is a rookie filling in capably for a Pro Bowler.

But it was Anderson's scouting job on Johnson before the draft that impressed head coach Marvin Lewis. Johnson, who transferred from Indiana to

Western Kentucky before his senior season, had some so-called knocks. Maybe he had a tendency to get heavy and there was a buzz that he was a difficult kid with which to deal. After all, didn't he transfer?

"I knew stuff was going around like that," Johnson said. "People say stuff about you that's not true. People want to be in control of you. You're a grown man at the time, but you're not supposed to know what's best for you, and I thought transferring was for the best. Some thought otherwise and they have their say so."

Anderson separated fact from fiction on a few trips into the Bluegrass and was convinced the guy had too much size, athleticism, and toughness to pass on in the draft. They would have to be tough on him and Lewis has had no problem doing that. Johnson has responded by hanging around the offices looking for what Lewis and Anderson can offer.

The pick reinforced Lewis' philosophy on a couple of fronts. You can get a rookie off on the right foot in a structured, disciplined setting. And, coaches have to stay involved in scouting.

"Jim did a good job just not being taken in by the company line on Jeremi," Lewis said. "That's why you've got to keep the coaches close to the situation and it probably helped we were right down the road. There is a middle way. You don't want your coaches to do all the scouting, but it helps give you a check and it helps everyone from falling in love with a guy and getting too attached (to a possible draft choice.) And Jeremi is really a good kid who is working hard and has been a real good first-year player for us."

Willie Anderson has been impressed how Johnson is adapting to the nuances of blocking. The fullback has to literally get his head to either side of the defender, and Anderson sees him getting better and better each week.

Even 10 days ago, Lewis was downplaying the loss of Neal because Johnson has responded so well not only from scrimmage but on special teams when tight end Reggie Kelly broke his foot last month.

"I don't know what shoes he had to fill, but he's played well. He's doing everything that we have asked of him," Lewis said then. "This is a game where you don't worry about what was there before or after you. He's doing a good job of being Jeremi Johnson, and giving us the things that we felt like we needed to have. He's such an upbeat guy."

Quarterback Jon Kitna loves Neal, but he knows Johnson is emerging as a solid player in his own right.

"Jeremi is not Lorenzo in his demeanor, but he is playing very effectively for us. We are trying to find him ways for him to be more involved in the game plan from week to week," Kitna said. "we're trying to get his hands on the ball, and give him some rewards for the things he's doing in the running game, and the way that he is blocking."

Neal might be the first to tell you that he probably couldn't have made the play the kid made last Sunday against Kansas City. He caught a pass like a tight end, balance-beamed down the right sideline like a wide receiver, and launched himself in the air and kicked the pylon on his way down like a running back for his first NFL touchdown catch, half of Neal's total in two seasons here.

But that's OK. Because Johnson is watching Neal do the things he wants to be able to do.

"I watch him on tape looking for tips even though we probably don't have the same styles," Johnson said. "The big thing is his aggressiveness. I think I'm getting better (because of) studying."

On Sunday, the LoNeal CD comes to life.

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