CINCINNATI — Michael Johnson’s bald head glistens. It’s a new look for the Cincinnati defensive end, who wore dreadlocks a couple of years ago.
New feels good to Johnson, and not just when it comes to his hair style.
Johnson had 26 1/2 sacks in four seasons with the Bengals, including 11.5 in 2012, before leaving for Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent last year. One injury-hampered and disappointing season later, Johnson is back to his NFL roots.
“Fresh start,” said Johnson, who had four sacks and 27 tackles for the Buccaneers last season after signing a five-year deal worth $43.5 million.
It was a deal that never worked for either side. The Buccaneers released Johnson on March 11 even though they still owe him $7 million in guaranteed money for this season. Four days later, he re-signed with the Bengals.
While Johnson had only 3 1/2 sacks during his last season in Cincinnati, it might have been his best overall season. He led the defensive line with 74 tackles to go along with 33 quarterback pressures and a career-high nine pass breakups. He was part of a defensive line that anchored the No. 3-rated defense in the NFL.
Cincinnati’s defensive stats took a dive last season as the Bengals finished No. 22 in the league in yards allowed. Cincinnati’s 20 sacks were last in the league. End Carlos Dunlap (8) and tackle Geno Atkins (3) were the only players to have as many as two sacks.
Just like Johnson, the Bengals’ defense is seeking a fresh start under second-year coordinator Paul Guenther.
“It’s a lot of things that you don’t see on the stat sheet,” Guenther said. “He’s a leader in the D-line room. He’s any every-down defensive end. He plays the run, he can play in coverage, and he’s a good pass rusher.
“It’s all the little things that he brings, just his work ethic and how it exudes to the other guys on defense makes him a really good guy to have on your team.”
Johnson was a third-round pick of the Bengals in 2009 out of Georgia Tech, a player then viewed as a work-in-progress. The Bengals added Dunlap and Atkins in the 2010 draft and the three players came to form what former coordinator Mike Zimmer labeled as the “Fisher-Price Package” in honor of their youth.
Atkins and Dunlap each signed long-term extensions with the Bengals in 2013. Johnson rebuffed the Bengals extension offers that year and instead played that season under the franchise tag of $11.175 million.
Johnson kept in touch with his former teammates while in Tampa Bay, texting and calling them throughout a season that ended with the Buccaneers winning just two games.
“We’re a close-knit group,” said Dunlap. “We started out when we were young together and now we’ve got those years of experience. We hang out off the field as well. We’ve got that camaraderie.”
Johnson wore No. 93 in his first stint with the Bengals, but that number now belongs to Will Clarke, a second-year player. Clarke is keeping No. 93. Johnson never asked for it back. He’s wearing No. 90 in this fresh start.
“It’s just good to be back and see everybody,” Johnson said.
NOTES: LT Andrew Whitworth was given the day off from practice on Saturday. Whitworth and DT Domata Peko are each in their 10th seasons with the Bengals, the longest consecutive tenure of any players on the roster. … WR A.J. Green gave the crowd reason to pause for the second straight day. Green was slow to get up after taking a shot to his groin area on Friday. On Saturday, Green dived for a pass on the sideline and nearly went head-first into the golf cart of owner Mike Brown.
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