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Rush to judgment

Posted: 7:30 p.m.

In Tank Johnson's two best NFL seasons, he had a total of 8.5 sacks. With their defensive tackles coming up with just a combined 9.5 over the past two seasons, the Bengals hope the numbers point to a more consistent push up the middle that will open up the quarterback for their sack-starved ends.

Besides impacting Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom, Johnson's addition also affects Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji (odds are slimmer the Bengals will take him at No. 6) and John Thornton, who never thought he was coming back anyway.

"If you can get push on the inside with pass rushers, typically they get flushed to the ends," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said Wednesday as he broke down what the signing means for his pass rush. "The quarterback comes back a little bit deeper in the pocket and the ends have a little more room to work."

Take Geathers, the defensive end who has had six sacks in the two seasons since he had 10.5 in 2006. When he had his big year, the Bengals got 9.5 sacks from players listed as tackles. When the other end, Odom, had eight sacks for the Titans in 2007 Pro Bowl tackle Albert Haynesworth had six.


Or just ask Carson Palmer what an inside rush means to a quarterback.

"It's not so much the fact that a sack can come from there, but just the fact a quarterback might not be able to step into every throw," he said. "If you've got pressure coming up the middle, you're throwing off the back foot and can't get everything on the ball, that's when turnovers happen. Balls get intercepted, balls get tipped and it makes it extremely difficult on the quarterback."

No one is saying Johnson is Haynesworth. But the Bengals hope his presence helps Odom (three) and Geathers (2.5) make a lot more hay.

Both missed a significant amount of time with injuries and working without a lead the majority of the season didn't help. But Zimmer is hoping that a 6-3, 300-pounder with penetrating skills can work some matchups.

"If you look at the personnel in the NFL now, the offensive tackles are all pretty good. The guards are not quite as good," Zimmer said. "If you can get a guy that can beat a guard, a lot of times that's the worst pass protector. And a lot of times they're going to get a lot of single blocks, where the tackle gets help by the back, the center is helped by the other guard. So if you can work it out that guys are getting one-on-one, they've got a chance (to win) some one-on-ones."

Since head coach Marvin Lewis arrived in 2003, only one Bengals defensive tackle has had at least three sacks in a season and Thornton did it each time. His six sacks trailed only New England's Richard Seymour among AFC tackles in '03, and he followed it up with three the next season and came up with three more last year.

Those look to be his last Bengals sacks. Although the club has had some interest in bringing Thornton back as a backup end-tackle, he said Wednesday what he's been saying since the season ended: He never saw it happening.

He wouldn't elaborate on his future plans, where he has a lot of off-field irons in the fire. Some of them include being a football analyst.

Cue the sound bite.

"If Tank can get back to his '06 form," Thornton said, "he's got more pop than anyone they've got. He's got an explosive first move. He's a good player who had some good seasons in Chicago. With Zim's aggressiveness on third down, he should be able to get some pressure." 

After the injuries to Geathers, Odom and backup end Frostee Rucker late last season, Thornton played end down the stretch, but his two sacks against the Browns came on passing downs at tackle.

He has a hard time putting his finger on the punchless pass rush.  With 39 sacks over the past two seasons, eight teams had more in 2008 alone.

"I don't know why. Robert is a hell of a pass rusher. Domata (Peko) is a hell of a pass rusher," Thornton said. "I think Zim's scheme is so aggressive on third down that it's going to turn players loose and they're going to be fine. I thought it's a reason I had the most I've had in awhile. He's aggressive on all downs, but his third-down package really gets after it and I think with a second year in the system you'll see them start to get there."

Back in February, Zimmer took blame for the lack of sacks because of his emphasis on the run. But Thornton says it's no different than what happened the previous five seasons.

"It's always been about stopping the run here. You tend to lock on to the run instead of react to the pass," Thornton said. "I hear that's been the focus, to try and change that a little bit. I think that's good. It's a fine line. You can't do two things at once. The big thing is they're going to be helped with another year in the system."

Rucker realizes he's going to have some competition from Johnson in the nickel package, where he would sometimes move inside.

"I know the guy's a good player. A known player I know he came out of college 300 pounds and running a 4.6. I do know that," said Rucker of Johnson's 40-yard dash time. "We'll help each other. He can help us. He had a good interview process, obviously. When he was here (last week), he came into the weight room when (the defensive line) was working out and stayed through the whole thing getting a feel for us."

Rucker thinks Johnson's addition to the D-line will let everyone get better in more specific roles.

"The way we use our packages with a lot of different blitzing linebackers, and sometimes with just a pure linebacker rushing on third down, now we'll be able to keep more defensive linemen out there," said Rucker, who had one sack last season before he went down with a hamstring problem on Pittsburgh's slick field. "That will help it. You always want to get your guys rushing that are up front. I think it will help us. As long as we can have defensive linemen out there and have the linebackers do what they do covering and we can rush on third down, it will work out for the best.

"Now that we've got everyone healthy, the ends can do what they've got to do. (You get) a push in the middle and you don't have to put ends in there any more."

Zimmer didn't want to herald the Johnson singing as The Second Coming. But he did say that the Bengals have a second-rounder (2004 out of Washington) that "has a few different qualities than the other guys at that spot. Hopefully it fits in with the rest of the chemistry we have on defense. I think we've got a good nucleus of guys. They're good guys. They all work hard and play hard. If we can get some veteran guys to bring these young guys along quicker, that will help us."

Lewis and Zimmer came out of last season gasping for a pass rush and with both coveting Johnson's experience (12 sacks plus a couple in the postseason) as well as his youth (27), Zimmer researched his baggage.

He liked what he saw on tape from Johnson's years in Chicago's 4-3 from '04-06. Zimmer thought he was out of position as a nose tackle in Dallas' 3-4, but he reached out to scouts, coaches and players who were with the Cowboys when Johnson was there and he came away satisfied that he could not only play a three technique on passing downs (to the tight end side), but also play the other tackle spot.

Who that other tackle will be in nickel (Peko, Rucker, Jon Fanene) remains to be seen.

"I talked to people I respect, especially players and coaches that were in the same room with him. The defensive line coach. The defensive line players. They had good things to say about him," Zimmer said. "That seemed to override any other statements I heard."

The hard-bitten Zimmer challenged Johnson to do the same to him and call his former players to find out about the no-nonsense-pull-no-punches ship.

"I told him, 'If you don't fit into this situation, please, do not come,' " he said.

Others seemed to hear what Zimmer is saying.

Long-time NFL exec Michael Lombardi, who writes for the National Football Post, observed on the site, "Johnson was not a good player in the 3-4 defense and getting back to the 4-3 might more suited to his talents.  Mike Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, knows all about Johnson and might be able to get more production from him than the Cowboys did.  I know Johnson has had off-the-field problems and his play on the field has never been spectacular, but this move might be beneficial for both parties."

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