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Michael Johnson’s new role at nickel tackle could save his career

With the Packers down and passing more than 70 percent of the time, the Bengals went with Johnson as their new Wallace Gilberry and he had a positive impact. After quickly becoming unplayable in his second stint in Cincinnati, this could keep him in town beyond this season.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Bengals have started the season in disappointing form losing their first first three games and already having fired a coordinator just two weeks into the campaign. The defense, though, has played well enough to win all these matchups, and the main reason has been the revamped defensive line that has been pressuring opposing quarterbacks at a fantastic rate. Michael Johnson, an afterthought since he came back from his vacation in Tampa Bay, has found a niche there to contribute as well as defensive tackle, and he might have saved his career in the process.

In 2016 the Bengals only had 33 sacks, and their defense struggled. They went on looking for a solution to their problems in the offseason, drafting Jordan Willis, Carl Lawson and Ryan Glasgow and trading for the former Jaguar Chris Smith. The results have been fantastic so far, and Cincinnati is on pace for 53 sacks in 2017. Johnson got one in Green Bay on Sunday, but his job is now Lawson’s, who is proving week after week to be a steal as a fourth-round pick. He now has a different role, though, and that is where his production came from against the Packers. Johnson, despite listed at 6-7, is one of their new Wallace Gilberry - the other being Smith, and a successful transition to that position might guarantee his contract for the 2018 season.

Johnson isn’t very good as a defensive end anymore. He’s still listed as their starting right end, but both Willis and Lawson were drafted to take over him sooner or later. He started the Packers game there, and it looked no different from the 2016 season.

He’s not athletic anymore and at his height he’s too stiff to move around and bend as a defensive end, although he showed a killer spin move I hadn’t seen from him in a few years.

Johnson moved inside after the first drive, and played a lot as a consequence of the Packers down in the scoreboard - 42 pass attempts and only 17 rushes, leading the entire defensive line with 57 snaps - 81%. The transition wasn’t smooth, and it took him a few plays to actually make an impact at tackle, but he eventually did and played well overall. He started slow, though.

Johnson might not be athletic or quick enough to play outside anymore, but he’s still faster than many inside guys and he’s got incredibly long arms, which can give him a leverage he doesn’t have at 6-7. And he did a little bit of everything on Sunday, willingly eating double-team blocks to give Geno Atkins the one-on-one matchup.

He managed to record a sack, though, in a perfect call by defensive coordinator Paul Guenther on third and long. Aware that Green Bay needed at least 10 yards for a first down he called a delayed blitz on cover 1 and the entire line was able to put pressure and collapse the pocket, eventually earning Johnson the tackle.

Against the master of the broken plays though, Johnson added another factor at tackle. His speed for his new role is a plus, whereas at defensive end it wasn’t good enough anymore. He was chasing Rodgers around in a few plays and in one play he even got the stop.

Obviously Johnson won’t play as much inside going forward, as he’s not big enough to stop the run and not every team will throw 70% of the times against the Bengals the rest of the way. He shouldn’t take many snaps off Lawson, Willis or Smith outside, though, as they’ve been producing consistently - the former Auburn standout should have had 3.5 sacks, but one was waved off due to a 12 men on the field penalty. And that shouldn’t be a bad thing for himself either. In a reduced role whatever explosiveness he’s got left could be huge for this passing defense.

The Bengals defense has been exciting to watch despite the three losses in three weeks to start the season, and with many youngsters proving they belong in the majors, Guenther and the rest of the staff need to stay daring and be aggressive up front. That includes keeping the rotation fluid and giving guys like Johnson or Pat Sims a reduced role to optimize their efforts.

What we saw from Johnson at tackle was encouraging, and so the Bengals need to use him properly and not go back to the status quo of him at right end for half of the game and then a few snaps inside. The old Gilberry role, shared with Smith, is the perfect mix for Johnson at this stage of his career and for the team as their rookies keep making plays.