Last year in the playoffs, Bengals linebacker Clay Johnston took down a king. Now this year in the preseason he's simply trying to get back over the moat into the kingdom.
"Every season re-sets. You have to start from square one. That's our standard. Not just getting to the Super Bowl but finishing it off the right way," Johnston said this week before practice. "Hopefully they'll keep a lot of the same faces around. I think we have great chemistry.
"It will all pan out. I'm not stressing. If the Lord wants me to stay here, I'll be here. If he doesn't, it will be somewhere else. But I love it here."
You can't say the call Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo barked into middle linebacker Logan Wilson's helmet that historic day in Nashville back in January.
But when it got passed to Johnston, playing his only snap of the 2021 playoffs, it meant simply for him to, "Go find the ball," on the Titans' two-point conversion with the ball nestled near the Cincy 1.
Johnston lined up on the right edge and made a beeline for King Derrick Henry running over left tackle and into Bengals lore.
When Johnston wrapped his arms around Henry's monstrous legs to keep it a 6-6 game, it more than helped allow the Bengals to win the AFC Divisional at the gun for their first road playoff win in history.
(Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill isn't exactly throwing with a one-point lead.)
But all that means nothing in New York Sunday (7 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) when the Bengals play the Giants in one of those preseason games that means nothing except to the Clay Johnstons of the world trying to make the final spot at a position on the Opening Day roster in their third NFL season. He may have got an AFC ring and a Super Bowl special teams tackle since he's been here, but that's still only seven games since he arrived via waivers on Nov. 9.
"That's my biggest challenge," he said of learning the defense and special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons' schemes and wants. "I think I'm getting better every day. Every day counts. I'm continuing to learn. I obviously love it here and the system we run. But you know special teams is going to be the way it goes."
So much for making one of the biggest plays in franchise history.
But Johnston does seem to have a leg up on the fifth and final linebacker spot behind Wilson, Germaine Pratt, Markus Bailey and Akeem Davis-Gaither. They love what Joe Bachie did playing for the injured Wilson in some big games last December, but he's still on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) with an ACL while Johnston does what Johnston does.
After racking up six teams tackles in seven games in the wake of being claimed on waivers from Carolina, Johnston had two more in last Friday night's preseason opener in 14 special teams plays, according to Simmons.
Not only that, he had four tackles and one for a loss in 21 defensive snaps. That's another thing Johnston does. When he was at Baylor he had 237 career tackles and 11 double-digit-tackle games. Which is what he did in last year's regular-season finale, when he started the playoff tune-up and had 11 tackles in Cleveland.
"He's been a difference-maker for us," Simmons said after Friday's practice. "He's picked up where he left off. He'll hit you when he does it. That's the most important trait he has. He's not afraid of contact. He's quietly productive."
He has dined out on his takedown of a king. When he was at a Cincinnati area Buffalo Wild Wings the next week, a fan picked up his tab. When he went back home to Waco, Texas, they'd stop him and ask about The Stop.
"I'm just thankful for the opportunity," Johnston said. "A guy like me doesn't get many, but Lou and Al (former backers coach Golden) had faith to put me in the goal-line package."
Titans coach Mike Vrabel opted to go for two when Bengals defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin got nailed for being the 12th man on the field and the ball moved to near the 1.
"Thankfully (Tannehill) didn't run a naked boot," Johnston said. "But I saw Derrick Henry and the ball on the one-yard line. He's the 260-pound King Henry. I'm gone off the edge. That was my job. Find the ball. Thankfully I was able to get my arms around his legs."
Now, seven months later he's trying to get his arms around an Opening Day roster spot.
"He's made plays for us," Simmons says. "Now we want him to make big impact plays.
PLAYER OF THE DAY: RT La'el Collins
They didn't wear pads during Friday's brisk 75-minute practice, courtesy of Logan Wilson. But to see the Big Fella lined up with the first offensive line for the first time in team drills this training camp, well, it meant a lot to him, too.
"Everybody is excited. I'm excited more than anybody," said Collins, who is returning from a back issue. "It wasn't walk-through or a padded practice. Like a run-through, 80 percent speed. Moving the feet. Fitting the hands. I'm working on everything. The timing of feet, hands and eyes."
It is looking more and more like head coach Zac Taylor is keeping his starters and regulars out of the preseason games and is focusing on giving his ones plenty of work in the Wednesday and Thursday scrimmages next week against the Rams on the Kettering Health Practice Fields before the Aug. 27 preseason game at Paycor Stadium against their Super Bowl foe.
The Rams won that game with seven sacks and the Bengals wasted no time signing three starting offensive linemen in free agency. Collins, who spent his first seven seasons in Dallas, was the centerpiece move that also included a pair of super Bowl winners in center Ted Karras and right guard Alex Cappa.
So it's fitting that Collins is planning to be on his new line against that Rams front.
"I think I'll get in some work against the Rams for sure," Collins said. "Anytime you get quality work with great players, you're always looking forward to it."
And with your own players. It will be his first scrimmages with Cappa and Karras. Collins puts Cappa in the same class with his right guard in Dallas, seven-time Pro Bowler Zack Martin, when they worked under current Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack.
"I've been fortunate enough to play with some great guards," Collins said of where Cappa rates. "No doubt. That's the reason he's here. One thing about Coach Frank. He's going to find those type of guys."
Edge Sam Hubbard was also back in team after spending Thursday on the rehab field working with Collins.
"That's been great, man. He's a pro. He's a great guy," Collins said. "We just giving each other looks and simulating real live stuff without the contact, so that's what pros can do."
PLAY OF THE DAY: WR Ja'Marr Chase and CB Chidobe Awuzie
Take your pick of a couple of plays in an extended low red zone drill. With Collins, quarterback Joe Burrow and wide receiver Tee Higgins in the team picture for the first time, the intensity was pretty good for not being in pads. Throw in tight end Hayden Hurst because Burrow did. Often.
Burrow had some big throws and he also had to throw some away because of superb coverage. Chase was his usual spectacular self and hauled down a couple in the right corner one-handed even though Awuzie was all over him. Awuzie won a couple, too.
"The defense made some plays and a lot of the plays the offense made were well-covered," said head coach Zac Taylor. "The ball was probably put the only place it could be put and the receivers made some really, really good catches. I don't walk away feeling like we made errors on defense or there weren't plays that they made, because they did. They made plays and then the offense made some really, really tough catches and throws as well."
Footnote: Cornerback Eli Apple also made a hellacious play on Chase in the end zone, reaching a hand out at the last instant to knock away a touchdown pass headed to Chase's arms reaching over the sideline.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: C Ted Karras on not giving up hope after not getting on the Sports Illustrated NFL Preview cover with Burrow:
"It would have been the third time for the family. (Great uncle) Alex made it twice. One was 'The Pride of Detroit,' where's looking right at the camera. I have that one at home. I bought it on e-bay like ten years ago. We're hoping for an action shot of victory on the cover."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: The starting offensive line for the Giants game could be shaping up as left tackle D'Ante Smith, left guard Cordell Volson, center Trey Hill, right guard Lamont Gaillard and right tackle Hakeem Adeniji.
Could be. That's tentative. But with left guard Jackson Carman out with COVID, tackle Isaiah Prince week-to-week with a bicep injury and the encouraging play of the second-year Hill at center and the need to see him at guard, that could be the way it plays out against the blitzing Giants. Hill may replace Volson at left guard at some point.
"I think he's been a consistent presence for us inside. He'll get some opportunities at guard in this game. He's earned those," Taylor said. "(We) didn't want to move him too quick from center because he was really doing a nice job at center early in training camp. What we didn't want to do is move him to left guard and now it takes away from some of the good work he's been doing at center.
"So we let him play out there and now we've moved him to guard some this week and he'll get an opportunity in the game as well. He's really developed the right way here in Year 2. That's what we hoped to see from him. He's taken advantage of his opportunities so we'll continue to see him grow over the next two weeks." …
Linebacker Markus Bailey (hamstring) won't play Sunday, but they hope he'll be back for Rams week…
Cornerback Tre Flowers didn't practice Friday, but he'll play Sunday …
Look for back-up edgers Joseph Ossai (four) and Khalid Kareem (0) to get more snaps than they did against the Cards. But not a lot. They're trying to manage both after Ossai missed all but one game of his rookie season and Kareem has shoulder problems in both NFL seasons. He's really looking to roll them out in the Rams scrimmages, particularly Ossai.
"We're going to get a chance to see a lot more of him and guys like that," Taylor said. "I'm not going to worry too much about this game. He's going to get some work and then we'll move on to next week.
"It's just his coming off his injuries from the past. He's a guy that goes really hard, every single rep and so we'll limit him in this game. He's gotten a lot of reps. Just easing him into the game. We plan on a guy like that being critical for us this year, so you want to manage those guys in the games." …
Defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin (one snap last week) is expected to play a lot more …
Whenever free safety Jessie Bates III returns to the starting lineup, look for the Bengals to start taking advantage of first-round pick Dax Hill's versatility. As a young player, they want him to major in safety, but they know eventually he can do other things. Such as cornerback.
"That's really what we started doing early was just playing him at free safety and let him ease into life in the NFL just doing that in the spring time and early in training camp," Taylor said. "He's not as comfortable as he's going to be with more experience but start to expand that role a little bit. That's been exciting to see him utilize his skill set and learn different ways and different positions. I feel like he is going to be very valuable for us." …
Yes, Hurst did show up in Friday's low red zone work.
"Hayden has a really good catch radius. He's got good burst," Taylor said. "He's got a good understanding and feel for some of these concepts in the red zone. He's a really good weapon for us in the field, but particularly … in the red zone, too. " …
Taylor said second-round pick Cam Taylor-Britt had surgery on a core issue and sounded optimistic about an early-season return, although he did rule him out of the rest of training camp …