Since his arrival via the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft, defensive end Michael Johnson has been a bit of an enigma to Bengals fans. He was a typical Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis draft choice, as his athleticism and potential were off the charts and many thought that he had first round ability. The knock on him was that he didn't always give his full effort on every play when scouts turned on his game tape.
Though Johnson had tremendous height and wingspan, the coaches initially thought that his abilities were better suited as an outside linebacker. While tinkering with that idea in the latter part of the 2009 season, as well as most of the 2010 season, the idea was ultimately scrapped. At the end of the 2010 season, Johnson and fellow "Fisher Price Package" member, Carlos Dunlap, came on strong at their natural defensive end positions. The plan for Johnson in 2011 was to start at defensive end, opposite the tandem of Robert Geathers and Dunlap on the other side while hoping to build off of the momentum that the two youngsters had built.
Fans were excited at this projected lineup, as it put Johnson back at his natural spot. Many felt that in his third season, Johnson would make a leap and really catapult himself into one of the league's better defensive ends. It began to occur to me that Johnson's contributions have been kept relatively quiet this season. I found this especially odd since he is a starter on a top ten defense, after all. Is he not performing well, or is it merely a case of a player on this defense who has embraced its "by committee" mentality and his plays get lost in the shuffle?
Obviously, when one looks at a defensive end's stats, usually the sack numbers are the first place to look. On the season, Johnson has five total sacks. As the team's second defensive end with three games left to play, that's not a number to scoff at. If you look a little further into Johnson's sack totals, you'll see that he contributed in some of the team's biggest games--registering a sack last week against Houston and 1.5 in the two Pittsburgh games. In fact, his best two statistical games of the season was the 35-7 embarrassment two weeks ago in Pittsburgh and the heartbreaking loss in Denver early on. Additionally, Johnson has a forced fumble and an interception on the season. The interception is particularly of note, as it was the first an only interception of the year for the Bengals for quite a while.
Even though these aren't eye-popping, Pro Bowl-type numbers for a defensive end, it's definitely a good contribution. You'll also note that Johnson has been a victim of the Bengals losing two of their top defensive lineman for a good portion of the season. First, is "The Curious Case of Carlos Dunlap". Johnson hasn't had the help of his partner because Dunlap was underutilized during the first part of the season and now has been dealing with a five-week long hamstring injury. Along with that, the Bengals lost defensive tackle Pat Sims for the season after suffering an ankle injury three weeks ago. It's a feat that two of Johnson's better games this season have come when those two standouts have been out of the lineup.
The other factor that plays into Johnson's perceived lack of productivity is the rotation that the Bengals use with their players on the defensive line. Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker have both contributed heavily in spot duty this year. Along with Johnson's five sacks, Fanene has added three and Rucker four. Now, Johnson doesn't come off the field every time when these two come in, but he is subbed out from time to time. If we feel that Johnson's productivity should be higher from a statistical standpoint, the guys behind him have stepped up well.
I told myself early in the season that if Johnson and Dunlap had combined to get them about fifteen total sacks, their defense would be formidable. And while Johnson is quietly right around the sack total that I projected, it's the impacts of Dunlap, Rucker and Fanene that have been unexpected. We'll see what happens the rest of the season with Johnson, but the bigger litmus test with him will be next season. After all, Johnson is only 24 years old and he'll be entering a contract year.