You have to admit, there were bright spots during the Bengals 16-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Most notably, the performances of Michael Johnson, Geno Atkins and the return of Adam Jones. Atkins and Johnson were clearly the top of the class, with Jones impressing me after his long absence from the game, aggressive in his tackling and strong -- though hardly perfect -- in coverage. Atkins would go on to lead the Bengals with six tackles, three loss and a quarterback sack. Johnson would sack the quarterback twice, add a couple quarterback hits for good measure and provided good quarterback pressure that causes several incomplete passes.
But it's Atkins that I came away most impressed with, even thinking to myself that he could at worst be the team's third defensive tackle on the depth chart.
That being said, let's go through the performances of three defensive players I highlighted.
ADAM JONES. I came away not expecting much from Jones, considering he hasn't played a football game for so long. I would have been moderately pleased if he just didn't allow any big passing plays. Not only was his coverage solid, his aggressiveness was impressive. On the first play of the game, Tony Romo rolled out right, intending a pass for Miles Austin, who ran a ten-yard out at the first down marker. After breaking outward with the receiver, Adam Jones initiated contact just as the football reached Miles down the sidelines. The pass fell incomplete. On second-and-20 during the same drive, Romo hit tight end John Phillips. After the reception, Jones sprinted up and took out Phillips' legs for a nice tackle after the eight-yard gain. Jones wasn't covering Phillips, rather made the tackle after being in the area. Even though Jones did allow a 10-yard pass to Patrick Crayton, the pass was one of those stop routes in which the receiver spins around while the defensive back's momentum generates just enough space for the reception. Rather than playing the ball, Jones was forced to make the tackle, which he did. To end the drive, Romo targeted Roy Williams on first and second down; both of which were simply bad passes. On the second down incomplete, Williams had Jones badly beat on a quick slant route that went over Williams' head. Jones covered Williams well enough on third down to force Romo to make a poor throw to Felix Jones out of the flats on the left. Bengals force a field goal after the goal line stand.
But it wasn't just the coverages in which Jones looked decent.
One first-and-ten during the Cowboys second possession, Kitna handed off to Patrick Crayton for an end-around from left to right. Adam Jones was literally the only man in the vicinity and he was being covered by wide receiver Sam Hurd. But Jones didn't give up. He shifted left, shifted right and then finally leveled a shoulder into Hurd, knocking him over. Jones' effort caused Crayton to slow up and redirect to the point that Jones broke up the play allowing other defensive players to limit the gain to three yards. Finally after the Cowboys recovered a fumble, forced by Johnathan Fanene, Dallas quickly lined up on second-and-17. Kitna received the snap, rolled to this right and hit Sam Hurd, waiting at the line of scrimmage. Adam Jones sprinted in and tripped up Hurd just enough to force a tackle after a four-yard gain.
Jones still has work ahead of him. But based on expectations coming into the game, I was literally blown away with his quality performance.
Leon Hall allowed a 16-yard reception to Miles Austin and a 21-yard pass to Roy Williams on the first possession.
MICHAEL JOHNSON. One of the things that wasn't as documented about Michael Johnson was his propensity to hit guys. When he lined up at linebacker, and the point of attack was directed towards him, Johnson put his head down and drilled the full back, sending him backwards. His first instinct is to step forward, either to rush the passer or to take out the first man that crosses him.
But Johnson was clearly the team's best pass rusher against the Cowboys Sunday Night.
On first-and-ten at the Cowboys own 33-yard line, Johnson rushed from the left side with safety Gibril Wilson. After quickly shoving the Cowboys' right offensive tackle away, Johnson reached out with his long arms, grabbing Jon Kitna's chest just as the quarterback made a desperate effort to get rid of the football... into the dirt that is. On second-and-seven at the Bengals 46-yard line, Kitna faked the handoff and looked left. Johnson sprinting past the right tackle, came within inches of dropping Kitna (if Johnson wasn't held), who released the football into no man's land. Two powerful rushes, two incomplete passes. On the following play, Jonathan Fanene broke free and nearly dropped Kitna, who would throw a bad pass forcing a punt. Fanene looked good Sunday also.
It wasn't until eight minutes remaining in the first half that Johnson would record his first sack. When Stephen McGee received the shotgun snap, Johnson sprinted from his two-point stance into the backfield. McGee started rolling out right, but it didn't matter. Johnson's impressive speed drilled the quarterback from behind for a nine-yard loss. This is also what's called foreshadowing.
With 10:53 left in the third quarter and the Cowboys lined up at the Bengals 29-yard line, Johnson dropped into a three-point stance as a defensive end. After taking on -- and throwing away -- the opposing tight end, Johnson dove behind running back Lonyae Miller, forcing him to stretch the play out a bit more than he'd like. Unfortunately for the running back, Gibril Wilson contained the edge allowing the impressive Orien Harris to finish Miller off for a two-yard loss. And yes, Harris looked very strong Sunday night, even with the first team unit.
Johnson's second sack would come 5:33 left in the third quarter. After a shotgun snap that sailed a tad, Johnson, at this point playing exclusively in a three-point stance as a defensive end, literally threw the left guard to his right and ran untouched at quarterback Stephen McGee, who tried desperately to roll out to his right. Johnson being too quick, dragged McGee down from behind.
I liked Gibril Wilson's hitting and aggressiveness. But I didn't like his coverages, allowing several 10-plus yard receptions.
GENO ATKINS. It wasn't until midway through the second quarter that the Bengals rookie Geno Atkins' presence was felt. With seven minutes left in the first half, the Cowboys lined up third-and-six in shotgun formation at the Bengals 16-yard line. Trying to be sneaky bastards, the Cowboys handed the football off to Tashard Choice on a draw. Atkins, lined up as the left defensive tackle, shed off the right guard's block just as Choice reached the 18-yard line, making the tackle at the line of scrimmage forcing a field goal in the Red Zone.
With three minutes left in the first half, the Cowboys lined up third-and-10 at the Bengals 43-yard line. Lining up as the left defensive tackle, Atkins ran forward, gaining position over the left guard with power and speed. After five yards in his pursuit, Atkins reached around the blocker and brought McGee down for an eight-yard loss, forcing the Cowboys to punt.
You really have to love Atkins' hustle. With 13-plus minutes left in the third quarter, Atkins, this time at the right defensive tackle spot, nearly drove the left guard directly into the running back just as the handoff was being made. After Donaldson passed Atkins, the defensive tackle spun around, sprinted behind the running back and pulled him down. This is the play that I went, "wow, this guy could be really special."
With 11 minutes left in the game, the Cowboys lined up on the Bengals 43-yard line with first-and-ten. Atkins took an inside step, beating the offensive guard and colliding with the running back two yards deep in the backfield. A few plays later, with just over six minutes to go, Atkins, lined up as the right defensive tackle, split a double team at the point of attack and dropped Miller for a three-yard loss.
Split a freaking double team.