Just about five weeks ago, the Cincinnati Bengals had quite a scare when re-acquired defensive end Michael Johnson crumbled to the ground and clutched his knee during a training camp practice. The team dodged a major bullet when it turned out Johnson had just sprained his MCL ligament in his knee and didn't tear it. The timetable for his return to the field was set at 4-6 weeks at the time.
On Labor Day Monday, the Bengals received good news as Johnson, Emmanuel Lamur, Leon Hall, and Rex Burkhead all returned to practice. It's a big and promising sign they returned for the first practice of the week heading into the regular season opener. While it's not a forgone conclusion that all four are set to play against the Raiders, it's definitely a step in the right direction.
Johnson helps the defense on a few fronts. One is the obvious in assisted pass rush, which is most welcome after the team was dead last in the NFL for quarterback sacks in 2014. Another is an able body to add to the defensive line rotation, which the Bengals want to employ for maximum productivity this year. Finally, Johnson is a defensive end who excels at stopping the run and batting down passes--two things that could frustrate the young, but talented Derek Carr.
The big defensive end is an interesting football player. In six years, he's only amassed 30.5 sacks, with 2012 netting him 11.5 of those. Still, after his one-year hiatus in Tampa Bay, Cincinnati's line suffered without his presence, and ironically, Johnson had his first issues with injuries while being away from The Queen City.
While the Raiders have some talent at running back, it isn't known as the strength of their team. Marcel Reece is a versatile player at fullback, and Oakland will want to use a "by-committee" approach with Latavius Murray, Roy Helu, Jr., and Taiwan Jones at running back. Johnson can help set the edge against the run, which is especially critical against the Raiders, as they love speed at skill positions as evidenced by Murray and Jones. Taking away the outside runs will force the Raiders to become one-dimensional and Dunlap and Johnson can achieve this.
Lamur and Hall provide depth in coverage situations, while Burkhead provides special teams help and another good receiving option for Andy Dalton. If Hue Jackson really wants to show off in his homecoming to Oakland, having Burkhead back and using him in creative ways is one way to have Raider fans rue the day he was run out of town.
The Bengals' defense will want to bracket coverage to explosive rookie, Amari Cooper. Even though he's up there in age, Jones can run with the best of them, but Dre Kirkpatrick is the best athlete of the cornerback group. Still, both Adam Jones and Kirkpatrick have shown the annoying flaw of biting on double moves. Cooper has shown incredible route-running skills for a rookie, so having a rangy linebacker like Lamur and a savvy veteran to roam the field, as a corner or safety, in Hall, is valuable.
The glaring omission from the lineup is linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was placed on PUP this weekend to start the season. Other than the Pro Bowl linebacker though, this is one of the healthiest groups the team has had to enter a season in recent memory.
Aside from gauging the rest of the week's practices and seeing who is still suiting up, there is one thing to note, especially with Johnson. The old stigma of "game shape" has to be considered, since Johnson didn't play in a single preseason game and hasn't practiced since he was injured back on August 3rd. He might not be able to be the three-down lineman he has been over the years immediately, which might alter defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's plans.
Regardless, having as many able bodies as possible in such a brutal sport is always a good thing--especially when the team was hit so hard by the injury bug last year.