It was actually a calm spring afternoon in 2012 when Michael Johnson said that he and Carlos Dunlap "can be one of the best tandems in the league." They ended that season with a combined 17.5 quarterback sacks (11.5 by Johnson), 21 additional hits on the quarterback, 66 quarterback hurries, four forced fumbles (all Dunlap) and five passes batted down at the line of scrimmage.
When you think of teammates at a certain position, your instinct is to navigate towards the offense. There's disappointment with BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard at running back, but not because of their individual performances. Alright, we're disappointed in Green-Ellis' lack of short-yardage production that's forced Cincinnati to change with quarterback sneaks and quick route patterns. But they've been alright.
Tight end looks good with a pair of play-makers entering their first year as a duo. Vontaze Burfict and Vincent Rey are developing into a tackling duo, aren't they? For a brief period of time, A.J. Green found Marvin Jones, but that development has stalled out as Jones has only six receptions and 77 yards receiving in the last three games.
But there is no set of teammates in Cincinnati like Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap at defensive end. No, that's not to downgrade the production and relevance of others; it's just that Johnson and Dunlap have been that good. Dunlap has already signed a contract extension through 2018 and Cincinnati would be wise to figure their finances on getting Johnson signed long-term as well.
"I told Johnson, ‘I’m here for the long haul'. Hopefully we can get you and Geno here for the long haul, too. If not, we have one more year to reach all our goals and me and you both get to Hawaii with Geno'", Dunlap said after signing his extension. Atkins has already signed a six-year deal, leaving Johnson as the lone free agent out of the trio for the next six years.
Their production together as one of the league's best defensive end tandem continues to raise the bar.
Currently, Johnson and Dunlap have combined for 10 quarterback sacks (led by Dunlap's seven), 27 hits on the quarterback, 57 pressures, ten passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage and six forced fumbles (four by Dunlap). Johnson's tipped pass against the Cleveland Browns forced an incomplete as a wide receiver roamed free in the end zone that would have led to the easiest touchdown in NFL history.
"I came to the sideline and everybody was excited," Johnson said. "I just thought it was a tipped pass. I didn't know somebody was wide open. Just turned out like that. We got each other's back like that."
"You rush and try to beat your guy," Johnson said. "You see him getting ready to throw and get your hands up. Most have to look when they finally decide where they're going to throw the ball. And if they look in my direction, the ball is probably coming that way. "When you do that, good things happen."
Only four teams (Eagles, Cardinals, Vikings, and Chiefs) have more passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage than Cincinnati.
It's not just their production against the pass either. Dunlap has vastly improved his run defense, complementing Johnson as articulated here by our own Jake Liscow.
This could be the final year that Dunlap and Johnson will play together. Johnson, who failed to negotiate a deal with the Bengals (the same deal that was handed to Dunlap) will be one of the league's top free agents in March. He'll receive a significant deal and leave Cincinnati, if the Bengals are unable (or unwilling) to tie that much money into their defensive line. Wallace Gilberry and Robert Geathers each signed three-year deals before the season started.
Instead of looking forward, as we Bengals fans tend to do during mid-season (draft, free agency), we might as well enjoy this relationship. It could be over soon.