Matchup of the Game: training camp redux

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*                                   Michael Johnson in Bengals days.*

BENGALS LT ANDREW WHITWORTH VS. BUCCANEERS RE MICHAEL JOHNSON

The Bengals keep nine defensive linemen, but you can call Johnson the tenth because he has never really gone away when they play each other for the first time Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in his adopted home of Tampa.

The word is that since Johnson signed with the Buccaneers back in March he has missed his ex-mates and it's not helped by the 2-9 record. But in Wednesday's conference call with the Cincinnati media, Johnson, ultimate team man and locker-room leader, raised the Buccaneer flag.

"I'm in this red and pewter now so we have to go to battle Sunday. I'll welcome them to Florida," Johnson said. "We're not out of the playoffs just yet. Hold on to that. But yeah, it's difficult. Any time you come into a new situation you want to believe everything's going to be a fair deal and go smooth and go in and dominate. But there's been a learning curve and we know we've taken some bumps and bruises. But nobody has let up. We're still grinding down here and still working and trying to get better."

All we know is that Wednesday before practice his guys on the Bengals defensive line face-timed him to see how he was doing getting ready for what has turned into a mammoth game for Cincinnati. On Sunday night as they bussed back from the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky Airport from the win in Houston, they skyped him getting back from Chicago. He is still in their text group so they know when he's in meetings and he knows when they're in meetings.

"They're my brothers and going to work with them every day, it was fun. It didn't feel like a job," Johnson said. "We had fun every day, especially on Sundays. We had a special group there and I'll always have very fond memories of our time there."

Back in '10, when the Bengals were going through their own struggling season and Johnson was a second-year man, he was joined by rookie end Carlos Dunlap and rookie tackle Geno Atkins. The rest is history. The vets dubbed the kiddie corps the Fisher Price Package and they had the last laugh because they all got huge second contracts and became the Wall Street Wall.

"We all grew up and became the bigger package," Dunlap said. "The Wall Street Lawyers, or something, whatever you want to call it. We started off young and all of us were fortunate to go and continue to work hard and get rewarded those big contracts. Unfortunately, Mike's happened to be with Tampa. It's a great opportunity for him and I look forward to seeing him and competing against him on Sunday."

There seems to be no bitterness on either end. The Bengals could pay only two of the three the mega money and Atkins was clearly the key guy. Everyone knows Johnson and Dunlap were looking at the same kind of extension, but with Johnson closer to free agency, Dunlap went first.

Yet Johnson is not a man about money. The valedictorian of the Dallas County High School Class of 2005, graduate of Georgia Tech, and exhaustive community leader, is thinking of teaming up with Dunlap again to train for a few weeks in South Florida. Inspired by Johnson's community work, Dunlap has been all over the calendar and Cincinnati with his burgeoning foundation this season in his absence.

"I was so happy to see him doing that. I can tell he was headed in that direction when I was there because he was getting more involved," Johnson said. "Playing football, yeah, that's our job, that's what we love to do, but we're put in a position to be role models and have the influence we have in our communities and especially young people's lives.

"(Cincinnati is) a good place to be able to do stuff like that. If you have a cause or an issue, people will jump to it and help out. It's good to see that type of stuff going on up there."

So yes, the Bengals miss him, too. The coaches loved his 90-percent play time, his reliability against the run, and how his 6-7 frame was able to alter passes a handful of times a game. Both have had to adjust.  Profootballfocus.com had Johnson rated as the fourth best defensive end last season. This year he's 51st and three Bengals are rated in front of him in Dunlap, Wallace Gilberry, and Margus Hunt.

The Bengals are 27th against the run, but they are winning, and the D-Line is never saying die. Just look at the stands on the goal lines in New Orleans and Houston.

Johnson has been hurt, spraining his ankle on the third play of the season and still playing 51 snaps in the opener. On Wednesday, Johnson had plenty of time to talk about his injuries. How the ankle took him out of one game and a hand injury took him out of another. But he never said a word. He's played 54 percent of the snaps in a rotation and has three sacks.

On Sunday, he congratulated Dunlap on getting his team leading 5.5 sack, a huge play late. Dunlap says Sunday will be no different than all those days in Cincinnati. Each will try to beat the other to the first sack of the day and then the most in the game.

The 6-7, 270-pound Johnson already knows what stands between him and his fourth sack. The 6-7, 325-pound Whitworth, rated PFF's third best tackle, hasn't allowed a sack and just one QB hit in another one of his seasonal erase jobs.

Welcome to the first five training camps of Johnson's career.

"He's a pro. I know he'll be ready to go each and every Sunday regardless of how he feels during the week," Johnson said. "Come Sunday, he's battle ready. I know he's going to have his A game. They do a good job with everything they're doing, protecting Andy (Dalton) and also running the football. So it's going to be a big challenge for us."

For one of the few Sundays, Whitworth goes against someone as tall as him.

"It's a benefit probably for me," Whitworth said. "For some tackles that aren't long, that's where he gets an advantage. Longer, bigger tackles have a little bit of an advantage in that sense. You see guys like Mario Williams, DeMarcus Ware, long arms, those kind of guys against tackles who don't have as long of arms or aren't as big of stature, it's a little bit easier for them. He's got all the characteristics of a great defensive end there's no question."

It's easy for Whitworth to respect Johnson. Football means everything to them, they're committed to youth, they didn't take any shortcuts to reach the NFL.

"There's nothing he can't do. He's big and strong and athletic and had a great motor," Whitworth said. "There I think they rotate some, but we know from here the guy can play 90-some percent of the snaps just fine. So he's always going to be in great shape. A guy you have a lot of respect for."

What Johnson loved about Cincinnati along with the D-line is what he calls the family atmosphere and how a veteran like Whitworth reached out to him.

"He knew I'd be ready to play different guys and he might chip in saying, 'Hey you might want to try this, I've seen them struggle with that.' That is being a veteran leader," Johnson said. "That's how tight the team was. He didn't have to do that but he cared enough about the team and about me to see my success so he would reach out and help. That's the type of group it is."

Johnson says he thinks that attitude is starting to bubble in Tampa.

"It's coming," Johnson said. "Guys are getting close and stuff. You've got to take an interest in your teammates not just on the field but off the field. Know the guy beside you. Know his interests. Know what he likes and doesn't like. That's when you start caring about each other and that's when you start really laying it down on the line for the guys around you and besides you. When you get that type of group and that that type of chemistry, that bond, that's when things really start hitting on all cylinders."

The bond, it seems, never dissolves. It's not uncommon for former teammates to visit the night before a game. When the Bengals get into Tampa, Johnson is going to be hosting a group of Selma high school students on a college tour and Busch Gardens. He can sense a win-win.

"If I can get the opportunity… (to) get those guys to come out and see the group of kids that would be great," Johnson said. "I don't know how I'm going to work that but I'm still kind of working on it. So we'll see."

Mark it down. Someone is going to help out the 10th man Saturday before they try to beat him Sunday.

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