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The Weekly Lineman: Evaluating T.J. Johnson’s performance at center

For the first time this year, Russell Bodine was benched for poor performance. How’d backup T.J. Johnson do in relief?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

“It was to calm the troops a little bit. I think he did a job of that. We felt good about what he did.”

Those were Marvin Lewis’ comments regarding backup center T.J. Johnson coming into the Bengals’ Week 12 game against the Ravens in place of Russell Bodine. With 9:14 to go in the third quarter, for the second time this year, Johnson ended up filling in for Bodine during the middle of a game. However, the first time it occurred back in Week 6 against the New England Patriots, it was because Bodine went down with an injury and Johnson substituted in accordingly. This week against the Ravens, he was simply benched in favor of Johnson for performances reasons. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples to figure out why this happened and how it worked out.

Push and finish still lacking

As the Bengals have a mediocre 4.1 yards per carry average, most of that blame can fall on the offensive line and the lack of push they’ve been generating out of both man and zone schemes. And they couldn’t really find that push from Bodine this week, especially.

You really get everything wrong with the running game in a single clip here. On a simple misdirection in 13 personnel, Jeremy Hill jump cuts into the back of Andrew Whitworth and gets tackled for a two yard loss by Ravens nose tackle Brandon Williams. Williams was able to get penetration by outlasting Bodine’s block and redirecting him to open the gap. Winning off the snap is not the end of the rep, you need push and to be able to finish to effectively block downhill, and Bodine does neither here.

From low snaps to an early snap

Every game we seem to get a couple of low snaps from Bodine, but a low snap is better than a mistimed one:

The tap on the shoulder from Clint Boling is supposed to happen a full second or two before the snap of the ball, not simultaneously. This is inexcusable from a three year starter, and it was clear Lewis and offensive line coach Paul Alexander’s patience was being more than tested at this point.

Assignment miscommunication

Here’s the undeniable issue when watching film. I can’t know for sure what the protection call was just by watching the plays, I have no ears in the meetings, on the practice field, on the sideline, or in the huddle. So when I see something like this, I have to assume blame:

What I do know for sure is that Ravens linebacker Zachary Orr shoots the gap with perfect timing, causing a clear miscommunication between Bodine and Boling. Looking at what Kevin Zeitler and Whitworth are doing, I would have to guess Bodine should’ve picked up Orr instead of chipping Zeitler’s assignment. Because Whitworth is going into the second level, which leaves Boling blocking two guys if Bodine is helping out Zeitler, which doesn’t make sense. What should’ve happened is Boling should’ve picked up #99, Timmy Jernigan and Bodine should’ve picked up Orr. Instead, Orr has a wide open lane to get to Rex Burkhead in the backfield.

That was the last play the Bengals offense ran in the first half, finishing two quarters with 116 total yards, a field goal and a turnover. Their opening possession after halftime lasted five plays and ended with a punt from their own 38 yard line. When they came back on the field, Bodine was pulled for Johnson.

Sketchy anchor

It took a handful of plays for Johnson to get his true first one-on-one in pass protection, as he went up against Jernigan:

The first half second is fine, Johnson gets out of his stance fine and has good bend in his stance. But he isn’t strong enough to hold his ground completely against a player like Jernigan, who consistently plays with power and leverage. After taking a decent number of hob steps backward to establish some form of leverage, he’s backed up in the pocket pretty deep. But he does finish the block by redirecting Jernigan who leaves his feet in an attempt to bat down Dalton’s pass that ended in a pump fake. It’s more of a positive for Dalton to stand strong and trust Johnson to eventually hold his ground, but for Johnson, well, it’s better than seeing the center not finish.

The little things

This will go unnoticed to a lot, but you can tell if a lineman has field awareness by the way he acts when he isn’t engaged with a defender. Sometimes it leads to making a block that saves the play, and sometimes it just looks like this:

Looking for work is a very valuable trait for a lineman to possess. While this chip by Johnson didn’t effect the play even remotely, it still tells me he has physicality in his demeanor and wants to hit people. Believe me when I tell you there are better examples of this than this play, but the message is the same. You want your backups to have this just as much as you want your starters to. Just because the personnel changes, doesn’t mean the mentality has to.

Help from a friend

On Tyler Eifert’s touchdown, Dalton did a good job of buying more time by rolling out of the pocket to let Eifert get open, but the protection was sound throughout the lead up:

The aforementioned Williams was aligned at 0-tech, directly on Johnson, when he tried to bull rush the right A-gap. Johnson managed fine and would’ve stunted Williams there, but remember looking for work? Zeitler has that trait too, and gave Williams a light jab with his left arm, sending Williams spinning to his right, and giving Johnson even better positioning, taking Williams out of the play completely. I’m not concerned with the fact that it was only a three-man rush, I’m more pleased with the fact that Johnson seamlessly fit into the group and didn’t mess up anything too severely.

Johnson is a lot like Eric Winston in that sense. When Winston rotates with Cedric Ogbuehi, he fits into the cohesion of the group, and his bad plays aren’t nearly as catastrophic as Ogbuehi’s (save for that game-ending strip sack he allowed in this game). But like Winston, Johnson’s ceiling is pretty low and you won’t get many dominant reps from either of them. And the backup duo didn’t have any in this game either.

Because that’s who they are, and players rarely change.

The Bengals offensive line has another tough matchup this week as they face defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles. If this struggling unit wants to have a statement performance, this week would be the week to do it.