Updated: 5:15 p.m.
If left end Carlos Dunlap is the beast of the Bengals defensive line, tackle Geno Atkins the motor, and veteran end Robert Geathers the soul, then right end Michael Johnson has to be the heart.
The relentless Johnson heads into Sunday's game in Cleveland with eight sacks in his last 10 games stretching back to last season and if sacks are overrated then certainly the number of snaps and production isn't.
According to profootballfocus.com, Johnson has played 283 snaps this season, which is 90 percent of Cincinnati's 315 plays on defense, and puts him in a 35-snap lead over Pro Bowl tackle Geno Atkins on the line. Johnson has five sacks, one off his career high from last season and one off Atkins's team lead. While racking up a line-leading 20 tackles, Johnson has more sacks than such pass-rushing luminaries as Aldon Smith (4.5), John Abraham (three), Jared Allen (three), Elvis Dumervil (three) and Osi Umenyiora (two).
So you'd have to say as Johnson heads into another battle with Browns five-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, it has now become a duel of top-level players and not merely Johnson challenging Thomas.
"I'm not playing as consistently as I want to be," Johnson said before Friday's practice. "I'm still working and striving to get to that point. I definitely feel more comfortable, but I'm not where I need to be."
Which is what he says about the defensive line, but he's got a good vibe about a unit that prides itself on being the hub of a defense that finished seventh in the NFL last year and is scratching back after a shaky start. The Bengals lead the NFL in sacks with 18 and are coming off games against two backs that are averaging nearly five yards per rush (Maurice Jones-Drew and Reggie Bush) in which they held them to barely three yards per rush.
"I feel like we're getting better," Johnson said of the line. "We're going to heat up. I know we're going to heat up. I can feel it getting warm and in a little bit it's going start sizzling. So we just have to keep going in the right direction."
It is one of the few times the 6-7, 275-pound Johnson and the 6-6, 312-pound Thomas can look somebody in the eye on Sundays and that might be one of the reasons Johnson has had some impressive games against him. But Johnson has high regard for Thomas, so he's not going to be yammering at him during a game. He only talks to "my teammates and myself," he said.
"That's when you should be resting," said Johnson of the talkers. "That's not my bag."
Johnson has played Thomas tough lately and got the first of his sacks this season last month against the Browns, but he has high regard for Thomas's toughness and durability.
"He's the best tackle in the league to me," said Johnson, amazed that Thomas has never missed an offensive snap in his six seasons. "That's crazy ... that's awesome. So you know he's a pro's pro.
"It's fun to go up against someone like that and challenge yourself play in and play out. (Thomas is) so technically sound, tough, hard-nosed. He brings it every play."
SLANTS AND SCREENS
» Head coach Marvin Lewis sounded very upbeat about the progress of No. 1 pick Dre Kirkpatrick after Friday's practice and said he could play Sunday when it was thought he wouldn't see action until after the bye.
But Lewis says the rookie cornerback shows no symptoms of the knee problem that kept him out of training camp for all but three days and didn't allow him back on the field until last week. Lewis says Kirkpatrick has been working with both the starters and the scout team and said "he had a good week."
Kirkpatrick fully practiced for the second straight day Friday and was called "questionable" on the injury report.
» After being limited in practice Thursday, cornerback Adam Jones (back) returned to practice Friday and went full and is probable. So did DE/SAM Dontay Moch after he missed Thursday with an illness, but he was questionable. Asked if it was related to last year's series of migraine headaches that shelved him, Lewis said, "illness."
Backup right end Wallace Gilberry (calf) surfaced on the report Friday when he went limited and is questionable. Wide receiver A.J. Green (knee), left tackle Andrew Whitworth (knee) and cornerback Terence Newman (knee) all went full Friday and are probable.
» Two troops from the Ohio National Guard, the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team and the 371st Sustainment Brigade, visited practice Friday and lunched in the PBS press box. They'll be back for Military Day on Nov. 11 when the Bengals host the Giants. Bengals president Mike Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis greeted the soldiers during practice and some players mingled with them after the workout. They were guests of the team and of USAA, a team corporate partner that works with the military.
» The conditions at Cleveland Browns Stadium don't have the makings for another 34-27 shootout. The National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, is calling for winds out of the south at 20 to 30 miles per hour with gusts up to 40 and a 60 percent chance for showers and thunderstorms on a 70 degree day.