R. Johnson bulks up Bengals' offense

November 24, 2005|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

As the temperature drops, the grass fields become worn and the footballs, fighting sleet and snow, don't sail through the air as easily, Cincinnati Bengals running back Rudi Johnson couldn't be more pleased.

This, Johnson flatly states, is his time of year.

"Everybody knows that is one of the strong parts in my game. ... I get stronger as the season goes on, as well as the game goes on," Johnson said. "We could use the weather to our advantage with me running the ball inside."

Johnson serves as the wild card for the otherwise finesse Bengals (7-3), who hope to make the playoffs for the first time since 1990. His grinding running between the tackles contrasts the air show put on by quarterback Carson Palmer and game-breaking receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Rudi Johnson also can help hide the struggles of a defense that gives up 121.0 yards a game on the ground, 25th in the league.

Without Johnson, the Bengals might have the dreaded label of being soft. With Johnson, the Bengals feature a 225-pound back who runs over tacklers rather than around them and is fifth in the AFC with 854 rushing yards.

Johnson may not have breakaway speed - his longest run is 25 yards - but he can wear down a defense with the best of them.

"Rudi has a real workman's type attitude," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "He's pretty diligent on ... being where he's supposed to be. And I think that's helped him. He's a very hard worker, keeps his body in tremendous shape, kind of a self-starting type of person."

That attribute is a major reason Johnson has vaulted himself into this position. He was a rarely used backup his first two seasons after the Bengals drafted him in the fourth round in 2001 out of Auburn.

As starter Corey Dillon's attitude deteriorated over the years, Johnson got his chance in 2003, splitting carries with Dillon and eventually playing well enough to earn a big-money contract. Dillon, meanwhile, was shipped to the New England Patriots after Johnson's 957 yards and nine touchdowns dwarfed his production that year.

Back then, Johnson was the hunter, but he may find himself the hunted now. Cincinnati invested a first-round pick in Chris Perry last year, and the dividends are still to arrive.

Perry led the Bengals on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts with a career-high 82 rushing yards. Nearly as big as Johnson, Perry has showcased more speed to the outside and better pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Perry has 254 rushing yards and 305 receiving this season.

If Johnson is worried that Perry will do to him what he did to Dillon, he is not showing it. "Not at all," Johnson said.

The split between Perry and Johnson is not as contentious as it was with Johnson and Dillon. Lewis said he learned from that situation.

"It was just difficult to find both guys time," Lewis said. "I think we've got a little different style and pace with these two guys. They're at different points in their careers."

Because Perry and Johnson both have four years left on their contracts after this season, Lewis likes the chances of keeping a vibrant 1-2 punch for some time.

"As long as they're both under contract, that's the way we are," Lewis said. "We knew we were going down this road when we re-signed Rudi and drafted Chris."

Johnson is fine giving way to Perry on third downs. He figures he can do enough damage, especially this time of year, on the first two.

"The hard work in the offseason is paying off," Johnson said. "The thing we've got to do now is maintain our success late in the year."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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