For the first 30 minutes of the Bengals showdown against the Dolphins, the defensive line looked lifeless outside of defensive tackle Geno Atkins. They were getting gashed in the running game and nobody was getting any penetration in the pass rush. The Dolphins only scored 10 points against the Bengals defense, but it was clear who had control of the game in the first half.
The Bengals’ biggest strength (the defensive line) was performing like a liability, and one of its weakest links in defensive end Michael Johnson wasn’t making anything better.
Then the second half began and Johnson aided in the Dolphins’ third scoring drive of the game by getting flagged for unnecessary roughness.
Out of all the players on the Bengals defense to seemingly lose their cool enough to warrant a penalty, Johnson would be the player you’d least likely suspect. The best asset Johnson has at the ripe age of 31 is his veteran leadership on- and off-the-field. After all, he doesn’t have the captain’s patch on his jersey for no reason.
The Dolphins kicked a 42-yard field goal five players later and extended their lead to 17-0 with 9:25 remaining in the third quarter. The Bengals, and Johnson, did what they’ve done all season: they persevered.
The offense responded with their first two scoring drives and the defense forced a quick three-and-out in between them. The fourth quarter arrived and the Bengals were still very much alive, but the momentum didn’t quite swing over just yet.
Atkins sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill for the second time, and the Dolphins needed 16 yards on a third down from their own 13-yard line. The Bengals were going to get the ball back with a chance to tie the game. Then running back Kenyan Drake scampered for 18 yards and kept the drive alive, temporarily deflating the Bengals.
Two plays later: bedlam. In the hands of none other than Johnson.
The defensive captain was in the right place at the right time, despite being unaware of what went down in the instances before.
“I had missed a sack, so I was like ‘aw man’, but I just kept playing hard,” Johnson said after the game. “I don’t really know what happened, I just saw the ball and it stuck. Thank God I was able to hold on to it, and waddle into the end zone.”
Waddle is an apt verb for return, but the Bengals certainly didn’t waddle their way back into this game. 17 point comebacks and 27 unanswered points don’t just happen, but a little luck never hurts. Regardless, they got the job done, and then some.
“We just keep believing and keep trusting what the coaches are telling us, and believe in our technique and play for each other,” Johnson said. “As long as we keep doing that, good things will happen.”
Johnson wasn’t a lock to make this year’s team, in fact, he didn’t even make the initial 53-man roster. An underwhelming preseason and promising talent behind him on the depth chart made him an easy target for fans, regardless of his character and actions off-the-field. Aside from this one play, Johnson was largely ineffective just like he has been all season and has been for the last few years.
But one play can change a game, a mindset, and the perception of everything. The Bengals have now come from behind in the fourth quarter in three of their four wins this year. Charging through misfortune and finishing strong have been clear themes of this year’s Bengals, and Johnson was a perfect personification on Sunday.