Michael Johnson's two long limbs are among the many reasons the Cincinnati Bengals have seven wins and hold a 2 1/2-game lead over the rest of the AFC North.
If it weren't for the 6-foot-7 defensive end's lengthy arms -- particularly his left one -- and his large hands, the Bengals may not have beat the Green Bay Packers. A comeback against the Cleveland Browns, likewise, may not have been possible.
In those games, Johnson got his hands up just when he saw Aaron Rodgers' and Jason Campbell's eyes drifting to the left as they looked to complete a pass. He got his hands on passes three times in those games.
"That's why it looks like that," Johnson said earlier this week, showing reporters his swollen and bruised left hand.
Against the Packers in Week 3, Johnson's pass breakup on fourth down fell to the turf, officially ending a Green Bay comeback bid in the closing minute. Cincinnati held on for a 34-30 win. Against the Browns last weekend, one first-quarter Johnson pass deflection near the goal line saved a would-be touchdown. Campbell was throwing to a receiver who had gotten completely open. Instead, the third-down breakup forced a field goal. Later in the quarter, another ball Johnson finger-tipped fluttered into linebacker James Harrison's hands, giving the Bengals an interception and turnover deep in Cleveland territory. After scoring on the ensuing drive, Cincinnati turned a 13-0 deficit into a 31-13 lead by halftime.
Johnson has six pass breakups in all this season, tied with Philadelphia's Connor Barwin for the league lead. As we kick off this Friday edition of the Morning Stripes, we look a little deeper at what makes Johnson so good at disrupting passing lanes with his long arms:
Specifically, we turn to Joe Kay of the Associated Press, who has this story on Johnson's pass-disrupting capabilities. You'll notice in Kay's story that STATS LLC has credited Johnson with five pass breakups. ESPN Stats & Info has him with six, tied for the league lead. So, that's what we'll go with. The Bengals' linemen practice high hands drills each day in practice, simulating coming off a low defender and getting their hands up as quickly as possible to knock down a ball a coach puts into the air. While at Georgia Tech, Johnson said he practiced his pass deflections while fending off even lower cut blocks. His last season was the year coach Paul Johnson first arrived with his triple-option offense that primarily calls on offensive linemen to dive low and cut block defenders. The defense practiced regularly against that offense.
We wrote about Bengals linebacker Rey Maualuga on the blog Thursday, as well, but here's a look at him from Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson. Maualuga is set to rejoin the team next week when it plays at San Diego. He wasn't with the club the last four weeks as he recovered from an MCL sprain suffered at the end of the second quarter in Cincinnati's 49-9 win over the New York Jets. In an effort to be in peak condition by the time the game arrives, Maualuga declined to go home to California during this week's bye. Instead, he has stayed in Cincinnati, working on rehabbing his knee. When he comes back, the Bengals will be awfully deep at middle linebacker now that Vincent Rey has come along and performed well in Maualuga's absence.
Speaking of injuries, here's a look from the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. at how players like Maualuga battle through injuries and rehab and try to prevent having to endure all of that in the first place. The Bengals have their own rehabilitation program and have had some success in recent years of getting players back to a high level of competition when their injuries heal. They'll need more of it this year with Geno Atkins and Leon Hall rehabbing from serious injuries.
Finally, we turn to The Baltimore Sun, which has this short item on former Bengals defensive back Jeromy Miles remembering his former teammate in Cincinnati, Thomas Howard. Early Monday morning, Howard was killed in a car accident in Northern California that also killed another motorist. Howard was 30. Miles, now with the Ravens, spent time with Howard, who played with the Bengals during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.