CINCINNATI – Greg Little broke free of the coverage as he ran along the front of the end zone. All Cleveland quarterback Jason Campbell had to do was lob the ball his way.
Whap! It never got past the line of scrimmage. Another quarterback had failed to escape the long arms of the Bengals' Michael Johnson.
The 6-foot-7 defensive end has batted down five passes this season, according to STATS, but none of his swats has been more prominent than the ones last Sunday during a 41-20 victory over Cleveland. The Bengals (7-4) came away in control of the AFC North heading into their bye week.
Getting the ball past Johnson and 6-foot-6 Carlos Dunlap on the other end of Cincinnati's line is a tall order.
"Sometimes you get it and a lot of times you don't," Johnson said. "The percentage is a lot lower of getting it than not getting it. Sometimes you can feel it grazing (a hand) and know you could have gotten a lot more on it."
He's gotten enough of them to make a difference.
Johnson's total of five passes batted down at the line ranks second in the NFL to Connor Barwin's six for Philadelphia, according to STATS. The Bengals have batted down 10 overall, tied for sixth in the league.
That doesn't include the number of passes redirected at the line. Johnson had both on Sunday.
The Browns had a chance to go up 7-0 when Little got open on a third-and-goal play. Johnson got his left hand up at the last instant to bat down the pass and force a field goal. His back was to the receiver, so he didn't realize he'd prevented a touchdown until he got to the sideline.
"I came to the sideline and everybody was excited," Johnson said. "I just thought it was a tipped pass. I didn't know somebody was wide open. Just turned out like that. We got each other's back like that."
He had a large hand in the Bengals' first touchdown as well, slightly tipping Campbell's pass late in the first quarter with the Browns up 13-0. The deflected throw went to linebacker James Harrison for an interception that set up Cincinnati's first score in a 31-point second quarter.
"It changed the whole momentum of the game," cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones said. "Signs of a good team: working together to be great."
The Bengals thought Johnson would develop into a disruptive pass rusher when they drafted him in the third round out of Georgia Tech in 2009. He had his best season in 2012, getting 11½ sacks, second on the team to Geno Atkins' 12½. The Bengals designated him their franchise player in the offseason.
With Atkins out for the season with a torn knee ligament, Johnson came through with his best game Sunday. He batted or tipped three passes, forced a fumble, sacked Campbell once and picked off a deflected pass.
Johnson was a basketball star at Dallas County High School in Alabama, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds as a junior forward.
"I played on the perimeter," Johnson said. "I would go down and get a few rebounds. They wanted me near the rim."
He'd developed a knack for getting his hands on the football as well.
"You rush and try to beat your guy," Johnson said. "You see him getting ready to throw and get your hands up. Most have to look when they finally decide where they're going to throw the ball. And if they look in my direction, the ball is probably coming that way.
"When you do that, good things happen."
Notes: The Eagles lead the NFL with 15 passes batted down at the line, according to STATS. The Cardinals are second at 14. The Broncos, Vikings and Chiefs have batted down 12. The Bengals, Rams and Bears have 10 each. ... The Bengals signed DT Christo Bilukidi on Wednesday. He was Oakland's sixth-round pick in 2012 and played in 13 games. The Raiders waived him on Oct. 23. ... They released DT Kheeston Randall, a second-year player from Texas who had signed on Nov. 5 and didn't play in either of the last two games.
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