Mike Thomas, signed in the offseason after laboring in relative obscurity for the Rams during the first four seasons of his career, was born to be a Bengals wide receiver.
Thomas not only grew up in Chicago idolizing and imitating the club's all-time leading receiver in Chad Johnson, but he has helped A.J. Green get used to the offense as Green aims at The Ocho's record.
"I was saying, "Child please," all throughout high school," said Thomas during his first media Zoom before Thursday's practice. "Whoever lined up against me, "Child please, you can't stick me.' It was fun to impersonate him and know he inspired me to play this game and to where I'm at now, it's a small world."
Thomas, who already has eight catches and his first NFL touchdown after just ten career catches with the Rams, has been an Ocho fan ever since he watched the Bengals' first appearance on "Hard Knocks," in 2009. Thomas turned 15 that August and soon at DuSable High School on the south side he was wearing No. 85.
"And I wore it in college," Thomas said of his run at Southern Mississippi. "I called myself "Ocho Cinco," so yeah I would say I was a little "Ocho Cinco" when I was younger."
As heads into Sunday's game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) against the Jags in what used to be The Ocho's Oasis in Paul Brown Stadium, he honors Johnson as the man that inspired him to play the game.
One thing he has in common with The Ocho is his blurred feet. Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham calls them "jack rabbit feet." Now we know who he has been emulating.
"For sure the YouTube video, but I'm not going to lie. The "Hard Knocks Cincinnati Bengals" that was it," Thomas said. "I knew exactly who I wanted to be like playing this game. He's funny, all the guys love him and he gets open and makes plays. I just knew that's who I wanted to be."
They did meet once. Last year before the Rams played in Cleveland. It was one of those moments.
"I just had to tell him thank you for inspiring me to play this game of football. If it wasn't for you I don't know what I would be doing at this point," Thomas said. "Just telling him that, that was good to let him know, man you inspired a kid that you probably don't even know."
Thomas didn't ask for No. 85 when he signed back in March, but when they drafted wide receiver Tee Higgins with the first pick in the second round, No. 85 was a natural for him since he wore No. 5 at Clemson.
"I was tempted until I heard Tee Higgins was trying to get it," Thomas said. "I was like, 'Nah I'm going to let the rookie get in and be comfortable in what number he wants and let him do this thing. I'll take 80.'"
If it sounds like Thomas is a nice guy, he is. When he arrived back in March, he was the only receiver in the room of coaches Bob Bicknell and Troy Walters that had spent more than a year in a system that closely resembled the Bengals scheme. Head coach Zac Taylor didn't embezzle the entire offense from Rams head coach Sean McVay, but he took enough that it is basically an entirely different offense than the one Green ran with the Bengals during his first eight seasons.
Green is off to the slowest start of his career while Thomas has caught a TD before he has and Tyler Boyd is the team's leading receiver with eight more catches and 114 yards.
But Green is a smart receiver always looking for the edge, so he's picked Thomas' brain about the offense.
"We talk here and there about different looks, but I know this is a different offense for him," Thomas said. "But, at the same time, whenever he asks me a question I try to give him all the right answers because at that same time, I know this offense can get complicated because it's a lot of thinking, it's a lot of stuff, fly motions and that type of stuff, so you really have to be locked in on the terminology as far as what to do.
"So my thing is I try to tell him not to think too much when you go out there because when you're thinking too much, you're not playing fast at all. It's like when you're thinking too much, just try to study when you can on your own and when we get together just try to talk as much football just to get more in tune to what we're doing."
So Ocho Jr., is giving tops to A.J. Green.
"It's like, yeah, he's a seven-time Pro Bowler and I always watch him in practice and stuff, too," Thomas said. "But at the same time you are always going to have a question. You're always going to have something to ask."
INJURY UPDATE: The game statuses come out Friday, but it's already looking like defensive tackle Geno Atkins (shoulder) is doubtful to play in his first game Sunday. He went limited again his in second straight practice off as month hiatus. It looks like linebacker Logan Wilson (concussion) is doubtful, too, after missing his second straight practice. Also limited for a second straight practice were slot cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander (ribs/hamstring) and left guard Michael Jordan (knee). Cornerback Darius Phillips (knee) went full go.
DANIELS LOOKS FULL GO: Defensive tackle Mike Daniels (groin) was limited for the first time in about two weeks, but that's good news considering he didn't practice at all last week and still played 28 of the snaps. That was only 31 percent of Sunday's marathon after he played in half the snaps in the opener. It sounds like he's back to that range.
"I feel way better, way better. I feel really good," Daniels said before Thursday's practice. "I'm just getting in from the walk-through. You guys will see me at practice kind of being my typical self. But I feel good, man. I feel good. … Whatever my team needed me to do. I made sure I was available. I made sure I was out there to affect the game in the ways that I could. Now, I feel a lot better. I feel a lot better."
Again, more good news for the Bengals because his typical self is getting in the face of the offense and driving his teammates. And, like he says, that's easier to do on the field than on the bike.
"Whatever it is, I'm just happy to be able to be there. It's easier to help coach guys up when you're actually playing in the game," Daniels said. "That's what our veteran presence is for. You are there to help the young guys out (and) help them see what you see. Your voice holds a lot more weight when you're actually out there on the field playing."
Daniels, the nine-year vet, is a big part of this defense's new culture coming out of Green Bay's winning tradition. For him it's all about consistency.
"Stopping the run is an attitude. And we definitely have the attitude. We just have to be consistent with it," Daniels said. "There's plenty of times where we've had goal-line stands, stopped guys on fourth-and-inches, third-and-one, things like that. But then we'll give up a big run anywhere, whether it's perimeter, between the tackles, whatever. It's just maintaining that attitude throughout the game. Just the attitude of, 'Hey, we have to stop the run, period.' Pass rushing skills, stopping the run are more of an attitude. That's what we have to do. Be consistent with the attitude because we definitely haven't. We've definitely shown it."
Daniels had to smile when asked about defending athletic quarterbacks (read the Jags' Gardner Minshew II) because after chasing Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow all camp, what do you think he is?
Daniels thinks Burrow is headed to greatness and he should know. He saw it every day for the seven seasons he was in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers. He sees some similarities.
"His poise reminds of Aaron. He doesn't seem like a guy who has only been here for five months. He looks like a guy who has been here for five or six years, and he's definitely comfortable back there," Daniels said. "I'm really excited to have him as my quarterback. His whole demeanor and the way he carries himself, he understands the importance of his role. That sounds silly, but a lot of guys don't, unfortunately. That's one thing I notice similar with him and Aaron, is that he carries himself in the way that lets everybody know he's the leader. He takes control of the offense, he's not afraid to get the defense and special teams fired up, and more importantly, he's having fun out there. He's having fun even though he's a very serious guy. He's got a balance of everything. I really like the kid. "