Vikings defenders know Bengals RBs well

The Vikings will be facing a physical running attack from the Cincinnati Bengals. A couple of Vikings defenders know Larry Johnson very well from their days together in Kansas City. See what Jared Allen and Benny Sapp think of Johnson and Cedric Benson.

In NFL circles, offensive success is often measured by how well a team runs the ball. Those who excel in the running game are typically among the better teams in the league. Those who are too one-dimensional and can't consistently count on their rushing attack tend to struggle.

As the Vikings prepare for the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, they not only have to contend with Cedric Benson, one of the game's better reclamation project stories of the past year-plus, but also with Larry Johnson – a castaway from Kansas City.

Both Benson and Johnson were first-round draft picks of the Bears and Chiefs, respectively. Despite being given more than his fair share of chances, Benson was never able to take control of Chicago's starting running back position, even after co-starter Thomas Jones left for the Jets. When he ran afoul of the law once too many times, the Bears didn't even attempt to trade him. He was flat-out released – ripping off the Band Aid on the relationship with the organization. When he signed with the Bengals, there were some chuckles in some NFL circles that the Bengals were scraping the bottom of the talent barrel, but prior to being injured three weeks ago, Benson was among the league leaders in rushing and was one of the few workhorse backs in the league.

The timing of Benson's injury coincided with the signing of Johnson, who, like Benson, was simply released after the Chiefs organization threw up its hands in frustration with the troubled running back. The final straw came via Twitter, where L.J. ascribed a gay slur to his head coach and, when asked about it in the locker room the following day, uttered another gay slur to the reporters asking the question.

Johnson still had plenty to offer as a talent. As the Chiefs continue their ongoing rebuilding process, which included getting rid of Jared Allen and Tony Gonzalez for draft picks, Johnson was the lone star the team still had. But, when it came to constantly butting heads with authority, enough was enough.

Two of Johnson's former teammates – Allen and cornerback Benny Sapp – are now with the Vikings. Both of them are intimately familiar Johnson – both the "good Larry" and "bad Larry." They agree that, when his head is right, there are few running backs in the league with his toughness.

"They got a good player," Sapp said. "As long as everything is going good and you handle him a certain way, he's a really good player. His problems in Kansas City had nothing to do with his ability as a player. He has had problems, but, when he's on the field, he's special. Cincinnati got themselves a very good player."

Last year, when Viking Update was doing a story asking as many players as possible as to who the toughest player in the league was, almost every answer was a defensive player. Except for Sapp, who cited Johnson as the toughest player at any position in the league. Allen had to deal with Johnson for years in practice with Kansas City and Johnson rarely shied away from initiating contact. Allen joked that now that they're on opposite sides of the war zone, he might, as Ben Dreith was wont to say, "give him the business when the two are at the bottom of the mass of humanity that crashes in on running plays.

"He's a hard runner," Allen said. "When I get a hold of him, I'm going to give him a little extra at the bottom of pile. Larry is good dude. He's competitive and so am I. We hit each other a lot in practice. Now I get to do it for real."

It would seem that the mantra of the Bengals offense – Chad Ochocinco histrionics aside – has been to establish the running game and imposing its will on opposing defenses. Allen, for one, relishes that kind of challenge and said if the Bengals intend to pound Benson and Johnson at them repeatedly, they had better pack a lunch – it's going to be a long day of old-school football.

"They've got two good, hard running backs," Allen said. "This is a team we like to play. We like to line up and get physical. We like to line up and hit people and we like to stop the run. This might be one of those old 1930s type of games – we line up, put some grass in mouth as a mouthpiece, put on a leather helmet and bloody it up. It should be fun."

What makes the battle in the trenches so intriguing is that the Vikings have built a reputation for stuffing the game's bigger backs. Teams with a tendency to run between the tackles have found the sledding nearly impossible. Neither Benson nor Johnson is a flashy runner. They are straight ahead, hit-the-hole-at-full-speed-with-bad-intentions runners. Something will have to give and, considering the Bengals' style, it may play into the strengths of the Vikings defense.

"Historically, that (style) plays in our favor," Leber said. "We pride ourselves on stopping the run. These gap-style offensive systems play well to us. We're just a gap defense, where everyone stays in their gap and you don't have many holes there. When you play a scat back – a quick guy like a Chris Johnson – he can squeeze through some of the holes. With those bigger guys, I think it plays in our favor."

The respect Sapp has for L.J. is obvious by the tone in which he speaks about him. Has he had more than his share of problems? Clearly. Has it adversely affected his professional career? Unquestionably. But does that mean he will change being the type of runner he was when he was competing for the league rushing title? Don't kid yourself, Sapp said.

"He doesn't try to fool you," Sapp said. "Some running backs try to run away from you or avoid contact. Larry doesn't do that. He wants to go after you and more times not, would rather run over you than run around you."

The Bengals have a strong passing game and quarterback Carson Palmer can't be overlooked. If he gets adequate pass protection, he is one of the most potent passers in the league. But, most of those teams that Palmer posted such gaudy numbers for were losers. At this time of year, they would be trying to avoid their 10th loss of the season, not looking to get their 10th win – as they will be Sunday when they meet the Vikings. The 2009 Bengals have come this far for two reasons – a stingy defense and a strong running game. They aren't going to change things up offensively unless the Vikings defense forces them to – something Allen said the Vikings are looking forward to.

"They've got weapons, but we've got weapons too," Allen said. "We have certain goals in every game – stopping the run and creating turnovers and getting after the quarterback. If we can accomplish those things – if we can be successful on first and second down – we're going to be successful in the game."

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