Unknown Johnson Taking Advantage of Chances

LB Brandon Johnson (Getty Images)

The NFL is full of stories about players just waiting for a chance to prove they can play. The Bengals might have their own improbable story unfolding in Brandon Johnson, who did his best to show what he can do in the team's annual intrasquad scrimmage.

GEORGETOWN, Ky. – Brandon Johnson was one of those transactions this offseason for the Bengals that barely registered on the wire. He played in just nine games in two seasons with Arizona after the Cardinals drafted him in the fifth round in 2006, stuck behind Karlos Dansby and relegated to special teams duties in which he produced a total of eight tackles.

That's not exactly the resume of a budding starter at outside linebacker but that's exactly where Johnson finds himself one week into his first camp with the Bengals. The stalled contract negotiation with first-round pick Keith Rivers has given Johnson the kind of opportunity he never got in Arizona and he is taking advantage of it.

Johnson was credited with four tackles during Friday night's annual intrasquad scrimmage but he was constant chaos to the offense as the defense won 44-27 in a modified scoring system.

Quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jordan Palmer all threw touchdown passes for the offense. Wide receiver Antonio Chatman and Jerome Simpson caught the first two scores with equally impressive diving receptions. Tight end Matt Sherry caught Jordan Palmer's throw to the corner of the end zone for the other touchdown.

But the night belonged to the defense and Johnson. The performance came on the heels of a talking to from new linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald after Friday morning's practice.

"He plateaued a little bit the past couple of days, the past few practices, but we had a discussion after this morning's practice about getting our mind right, getting back on track and getting back on focus," said FitzGerald. "He was able to get things sorted out and I was pleased with how he responded. The last few practices he had leveled off a little bit and I was disappointed. We're not going to let those things slide and he came back this afternoon and had a good day."

Johnson took the talk to heart.

"Anything that a coach says to you has to stick with you whether it's positive or negative," said Johnson after the game. "I think that was a good time for it. He did the right thing. He brought me to Earth and really made me focus and hone in. Fatigue in camp can make you lose focus and I think that's what it was. I was getting a little tired and was fading away. He brought me back."

Rivers will eventually sign a deal and will eventually get into camp but for the time being he is losing ground to the unheralded Johnson. At 6-feet-5, 245 pounds the Louisville alum has a kind of physical makeup to play well as the Will linebacker. If the Bengals defense is to improve from its showings of the past five seasons in the Marvin Lewis era, however, it is going to take more than just one player in a scrimmage game.

"He played well," said defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "He showed up. It's easy to show up when you're making some plays in the open field and stuff like that but I thought the defensive line did a nice job of keeping him free and allowing him to run. Those things are important and they all go hand-in-hand."

The scrimmage was set up to see the offense and defense go at each other in various situations but one aspect that stuck out was that the defense did well overall against the run. The offense ran 26 plays and gained just 55 yards. Not a good showing for a unit that is focused on running the ball better this season but it was a good sign for the defense, which finished ranked 21st in the league against the run last season.

Chris Perry rushed for 33 yards on nine carries, with a long run of 14 yards. It was his first game-type action since dislocating an ankle on Nov. 30, 2006 in a 30-0 win at Cleveland and, despite the totals, he looked sharp. Perry also caught three passes for 17 yards.

The Bengals held out 10 players for various reasons: RB DeDe Dorsey, WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR Chad Johnson, FB Jeremi Johnson, S Herana-Daze Jones, CB Ethan Kilmer, DE Antwan Odom, RB Kenny Watson, RB Rudi Johnson and rookie CB Jonathan Zenon all sat out. That left more chances for Perry and rookie free agent James Johnson.

"I thought Chris did a nice job," said Lewis. "He's going to get a little winded until he gets back into this football thing totally but he did a nice job and he's battling for his job. We've got some guys that have got to get back that are battling with him and right now he's getting the playing time and they're not."

The Bengals have a mock game on Saturday and open the preseason at Green Bay on Monday, Aug. 11.

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