In a conference call with the media on Wednesday, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson challengedHead Coach Bill Belichick to try stopping him with single coverage when the Patriots play the Bengals this weekend.
In his Thursday press conference, Belichick had fun with the media and Johnson by offering a response.
A member of the media read off Johnson's list of warnings to the Patriots secondary and Belichick chuckled along with the press, calling him "a good guy." Belichick went on to explain that he's crossed paths with Johnson a few times and described him as an "entertaining kid" and "a good guy to be around."
Belichick joked, "I'm sure he meant all those things real seriously." The typically stoic coach was all smiles.
"I could throw the same stuff back at him if that's we really wanted to do," he said. The room exploded, turning from a group of serious professional reporters into a kindergarten class begging to skip naptime in favor of a good story.
"Tell him that, yeah, tell him that we'd cover him one-on-one all the time, but he pushes off more than any receiver in the league. He must be paying off the officials not to call it, so we're going to have to double-cover him some, not that he can get open. But as much as he pushes off, we're going to have to do something to protect ourselves. . . . He's a great player. We know that."
Everyone in the room laughed. Someone even clapped, because Belichick never says such things.
Patriots safetyRodney Harrison described the colorful receiver similarly. Obviously, not taking Johnson's threat to knock his helmet off seriously.
"The circus is in town," said Harrison with a wide grin. "I know it's all in fun. He didn't mean anything personal by it."
Like Belichick, Harrison offered a response to the threat.
"That guy couldn't knock a mosquito's helmet off," joked Harrison. "I guarantee you – if he knocks my helmet off, I guarantee you – I will retire!"
Harrison loves to exaggerate his age – he's only 33 – but retirement? No way. He kept the bullets flying.
"This is kind of similar to uh,Freddie Mitchell's gig, but Chad's not as good as Freddie," he said. Mitchell spouted off to the media about Harrison before Super Bowl XXXIX, but left the Super Bowl having made only one catch for 11 yards. Harrison caught two interceptions in the game.
Eventually, Harrison settled down.
"The guy obviously has a level of respect for me and I have a level of respect for him. I'm just looking forward to him knocking my helmet off," said Harrison.
One thing Belichick and Harrison have been serious about this week is the strength of the Bengals offense.
"They're a very explosive team, and they can score a lot of points in a hurry," said coach Belichick in his Wednesday press conference. "They're a big-play team, offensively. Lightning can strike in a hurry with them from any number of guys – running backs, receivers. The quarterback's outstanding. They have a good offensive line."
Despite all the talk about the "struggling" Patriots offense, the Patriots have more passing first downs (40) than the Bengals (36) entering the Week 4 matchup, and have accumulated more net-passing yards (667) than the Bengals (600). However, the 2006 Bengals are a good example of how statistics can be deceiving. They are not the Bengals of the '90s.
"[Johnson] is very good with the deep ball, and he's good with the run after the catch, so if you play too far off of him and they hit him on those short patterns, he can turn those into big plays. As T.J. [Houshmandzadeh], and [Chris] Henry, and Tad Perry, and all of those guys can," said Belichick. "Some of those long passes aren't just all 50-yard bombs. Some of them are 10 yard crossing patterns that turn into 50-yard catch and run plays. They can get you both ways."
Although Johnson is boisterous when talking about himself – he's known to refer to himself by his number, 85 - he'll also give credit where it's due. He explained Wednesday that the stacked coverage he's usually presented with can free up other wideouts likeT.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chris Henry.
"They are balling out of control," said Johnson of the two.
"You have to make them work for everything that they get," said Harrison about defending the Bengals receiving corps. "You can't give up a 60, 70, 80-yard bomb. That's what those guys get motivated on. They have the ability, any time they get the ball, to take it all the way down the field. So I think you have to make them put together some 10 or 12-play series' and make them earn everything that they get."
The Bengals running back, Rudi Johnson, is nothing to scoff at either. Harrison called him "the most underrated running back in the NFL."
"He's a very good inside runner," said Belichick of Rudi Johnson. "They have a very good perimeter passing attack. It's hard to defend both. If you want to get up there and stop [Rudi] Johnson, you might be able to do that, but you're giving up a lot of exposure outside. If you want to commit all of your defenders to covering their perimeter receivers, you might be pretty competitive with that, but now you have a lot of problems with the inside running game with Rudi."
At the controls of Cincinnati's strong offense is Heisman Award winning quarterback Carson Palmer. Palmer epitomizes the classic pocket quarterback and throws accurately and effectively from any distance.
"Carson Palmer is an excellent quarterback," said Belichick. "He really gives [the receivers] a chance to get the ball. He puts it in a tight spot where only they can get it. He makes a number of those [big] plays too."
Apparently Chad Johnson thinks pretty highly of Palmer too. He compared him to Tom Brady on Wednesday.
"Carson is very, very good – one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL." Said Johnson. "And with his presence here, he makes it easy for all of us. He makes it easy for the receivers to catch the balls. It's no different than the Patriots receivers having Tom Brady. He just makes everything simple."
Coming off a serious knee injury incurred at the end of last season, Palmer's return happened faster than many believed possible.
"I saw when it happened, and I was just like 'Wow, I can't believe it could happen on a fluke play like that,' but I know what type of work he put into it – extremely difficult for him with the rehab. He's a tough young kid and it didn't surprise me that he made it back and he's playing as well as he's playing," said Harrison of Palmer.
It's been almost a year exactly since Harrison sustained his own season-ending knee injury.
"I'm feeling pretty good – for an old man," said Harrison.
Even if Harrison and Belichick usually get caught up trying to act their age, they both demonstrated that they still have a sense of humor, even when faced with such a serious game.
The Patriots brought in Vinny Testaverde for a tryout this week. They also worked out Tommy Maddox last week.
Though some would speculate that these quarterbacks are visiting because Tom Brady has some top secret injury that nobody knows about and doesn't show when he plays, Brady did his best to clear all that up yesterday. He said he feels great physically.
"The best I've felt in a long time," said Brady.
"We have an emergency list for every position," said Belichick today. "You don't know what position you're going to need."
Today's practice was shorts, shoulder pads and helmets again. The only player missing from the media-allowed portion of practice was cornerback Ellis Hobbs (second consecutive day). Wideout Jonathan Smith and running back Corey Dillon were both seen wearing San Francisco Giants hats in the locker room today.