Matchup Of The Game: Fast Learner Fred Johnson Gets Another Rep Against One of NFL's Best

Fred Johnson gets another call at right guard Sunday.
Fred Johnson gets another call at right guard Sunday.

BENGALS RG FRED JOHNSON VS. EAGLES DT FLETCHER COX

After getting home from practice during his first full week as the Bengals starting right guard, Johnson watches video of the five-time Pro Bowler Cox, one of the NFL's elite defensive tackles over the last decade, while taking care of his nine-month-old French Bulldog Brasi named after Vito Corleone's bodyguard in the movie classic "The Godfather."

Not a bad way for one of the young pups on the offensive line entrusted with the care of the franchise quarterback to prep for Sunday's game in Philadelphia (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against an Eagles team as winless and needy as the Bengals.

"They're easy to take care of once you figure out what they like to eat," Johnson says of his dog day decision that included taking the name from rapper Kevin Gates' ode to Brasi. "They're lovable dogs. They don't bark. That's the biggest thing for me. Only when the vacuum cleaner comes up."

There's a lot of noise around the Bengals offensive line after two games they haven't been able to get the running game going, Burrow has taken some shots that included Johnson giving up Burrow's first career strip-sack, and they lost their big free-agent veteran addition up front when right guard Xavier Su'a-Filo left the opener in the fourth quarter with a severe ankle injury.

Despite not playing guard regularly since he came into the NFL last season, the massive, athletic Johnson was the choice of the coaches last Thursday night to take Su-a'-Filo's spot on a line that already has what amounts to a rookie in left tackle Jonah Williams and a guy in his second season making his 12th NFL start Sunday in left guard Michael Jordan.

That's because the 6-6, 325-pound Johnson's upside is just as big as he is. Center Trey Hopkins calls Johnson's potential limitless. So is that guard tandem including the 6-6, 315-pound Jordan that Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham says has to be the biggest in the NFL.

"Freddy's got upside. I think Freddy has come nowhere near his upside," says Lapham, the most versatile offensive lineman in Bengals history. "The problem is he's developing against live bullets and not being brought along at a slower place like say a guy like (sixth-round pick Hakeem) Adeniji.

"Freddy showed against the Browns last season out at (left tackle) that he can play the game. It's just a different game in there. Moving out to tackle is more of a physical challenge, but moving into guard takes time to adjust in there. They play fast in there and they're coming at you with stuff like linebacker stunts. They're not on the Autobahn, but they exceed the speed limit."

Johnson, 23, has proven to be a quick learner everywhere he's been. From the moment he walked into the library at Royal Palm Beach High School in West Palm Beach, Fla., when he was a junior. The monitor that day happened to be the school's offensive coordinator and even though the big kid didn't play any sports he suggested he come out for the team.

"He told me if I didn't like it, I didn't have to come back. The team wouldn't let me leave and I started to fall in love with the game my senior year," Johnson says. "The stuff you go through with your teammates. Bonding. Friends for life. There's no sport like it, really."

After not playing at all as a junior, Johnson got recruited by the University of Florida during a senior season Royal Palm went to the regional final. He began in Gainesville at right tackle, but when they needed guards he wanted to get on the field and stepped in at right guard and drew 31 college starts at both spots before the Steelers signed him after the 2019 draft.

Pittsburgh had the same development in mind when they put Johnson on the roster, but when the Steelers tried to move to the next phase of the plan in mid-October and waived him, the Bengals claimed him. They had the same reports on Johnson from Florida and weren't going to pass on such an agile NFL body.

Johnson wasn't able to dislodge Bobby Hart from right tackle during this past training camp, but offensive line coach Jim Turner and assistant Ben Martin used Johnson enough at guard to believe he can play both well. They had enough faith in him to turn to him at guard in a short week limited to merely walkthroughs.

Even though it didn't go well early last Thursday, including allowing Pro Bowler Myles Garrett's game-changing sack-and-strip, they saw Johnson's moxie and toughness.

More importantly, so did he.

"I learned even though I was having a rough start like that, I finished strong," Johnson says. "That's the thing about this team is we'll fight to the end. It's a different type of team than it was last year."

Garrett is known as an edge rusher, but while Johnson is learning he's also been around long enough to know that he would see Garrett eventually.

"I never played guard in the NFL, so I knew they were going to try and find a mismatch somewhere somehow," says Johnson, who chalks up the sack to a lack of technique. "I didn't have as good a game as I thought I would have. I'm feeling really more comfortable than I did last week. It's just preparation."

Hopkins, the man in the middle, also thinks Johnson is going to take advantage of a normal practice week. Lapham was stunned to see Johnson "stoned," on some snaps Thursday night because of his size, "but it just goes to show you what happens when you don't have leverage and you don't play low," but he just thinks Johnson needs the game reps.

"I thought he did extremely well, especially considering the quick turnaround from the first week to the Thursday game," Hopkins says. "You know how practices go in between there when you're not really getting as many reps. You're not getting as many live reps as you would during a normal week of preparation.

"He's been predominately working tackle and getting in there and already knowing what to do, which is of course is always a great thing and it's what's expected. But being able to do it at a high level, like he performed at on Thursday, I thought was a great testament to him. As far as his potential goes, I think he's the only one that can put a limit on himself at this point."

Johnson hasn't done that yet. He figures if he hadn't walked into the library that day, he probably wouldn't have gone to college and he'd still be back home. Now he wants to finish up his family youth and community sciences degree, get a master's and become a child therapist or marriage counselor.

"Football made me want to do something different than everything else going on around me," Johnson says. "I like helping people … It's something where I can be my own boss and work up clientele.

"That a long way from now. But it's a plan."

Right now he's immersed in this week's plan of dealing with the relentless 6-4, 310-pound Cox. Cox is in his ninth season of a career he's missed just three games, reflecting his strength and experience. The thinking is Cox is going to figure out where his best line of attack is going to be along the front, so everyone is bracing.

"There's a lot of big guys, a lot of strong guys in the league, but he's not just a guy that's out there just playing free ball," Hopkins says of Cox. "Actually, he can anticipate the plays. He anticipates the schemes because he's seen so many snaps in football. I think that's one of the most dangerous things about him besides his obvious strength."

As usual, Johnson is learning quickly,

"He's strong. He's savvy," Johnson says. "Everybody knows what's out there."

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