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Michael Johnson feeling the heat from Chris Smith

Chris Smith continues to impress, which could be bad news for the incumbent Michael Johnson.

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NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Cincinnati Bengals
Chris Smith
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Michael Johnson has to be feeling the heat this preseason.

In the Bengals’ first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Johnson recorded no tackles, assists or any other kind of statistic during limited action.

On Saturday versus the Kansas City Chiefs, Johnson played all of the first quarter, and the results were not much better. He was credited with an assist on a tackle of tight end Demetrius Harris, a play that occurred eight yards downfield and took the Chiefs to the Bengals’ 5-yard-line. The series would eventually result in Kansas City’s first touchdown of the evening.

Johnson’s play has continued to deteriorate since the 2012 season, when he accounted for 52 total tackles, including 35 solos, 11.5 sacks, an interception and one forced fumble. In 2013, Johnson’s sack total plummeted to 3.5, but he contributed 10 passes defensed to go along with another interception and two forced fumbles.

Tampa Bay signed Johnson to a lucrative free-agent contract in 2014, but Johnson was unable to live up to the hype. Although he played through injuries during most of the season, he still managed four sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. The Buccaneers released Johnson in March of 2015 and the Bengals promptly resigned him.

Johnson responded with a decent year for Cincinnati in 2015 with 42 total tackles, including 29 solos, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. But his play really fell off in 2016 as he managed only 3.5 sacks and three passes defensed.

Although the Bengals are reluctant to move on from their aging stars, especially highly-paid performers like Johnson, the 30-year-old product of Georgia Tech really needed to see a boost in his performance in 2017. Unfortunately for Johnson, his slow start has been anything but promising.

Unlike recent years, however, the Bengals finally have someone waiting in the wings should Johnson continue to struggle. Chris Smith, who alternated with Johnson and saw action against Kansas City’s first- and second-string offensive lines, was only credited with one tackle.

But that tackle was a four-yard sack of third-string quarterback Tyler Bray that resulted in a four-yard loss. Smith was also credited with five quarterback hits. He proved to be a nightmare matchup for Kansas City tackles all night. Most of his pressure came on speed rushes around the outside.

But in this first clip, Smith, who was lined up as the left defensive end for the Bengals, simply bull rushes Kansas City second-string right tackle Jah Reid, ignores the chip of the running back and forces a quick throw from backup quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

In this second clip, Smith, once again coming from the left side, records his first sack of the preseason when he once again bull rushes the Kansas City tackle, this time starting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Smith drives right through an attempted hold by the right guard and drops Bray for the loss.

Smith’s performance against Kansas City, coupled with last week’s performance where he proved to be the most highly-graded member of the Bengals’ defensive unit, according to Pro Football Focus, has certainly put him in prime position to make the Bengals’ 53-man roster.

In fact, Smith was once again PFF’s highest-graded Bengal against the Chiefs, earning a game-high 90.8 grade:

ED Chris Smith, 90.8 overall grade

Smith was a force coming off the right side for the Bengals in the second half. While the majority of his work came against the Chiefs backup offensive lineman, these are still NFL players, and Smith abused them. Despite only having one sack on the stat sheet, Smith made his presence felt with five pressures, a tackle for loss and a 29.7 pass-rush productivity mark.

Should he continue to shine against the opposition’s starters, while Johnson continues to be a non-factor, Smith could easily find himself in a rotation with Jordan Willis at right defensive end, while Johnson could find his way on to the bench, or even on the street.