Concussion could hit Bengals line harder

CINCINNATI -- Ahead of another key conference contest, the Cincinnati Bengals are facing the real possibility that for a second straight game, injuries could force them to be without another key contributor.

If defensive end Michael Johnson's ailment ends up being as bad as it appears, they might be short on the line well beyond this week.

When Cincinnati returned to the practice field Wednesday for the first time since Sunday's 17-6 loss at Cleveland, doctors held out Johnson with what's being called a concussion. He was among those on the team's list of players who did not practice. That group included offensive guard Mike Pollak (knee) and cornerbacks Leon Hall (hamstring) and Dre Kirkpatrick (hamstring). Hall and Kirkpatrick were among those members of the secondary who missed most of last week with injuries.

The Bengals found out about Johnson's injury minutes after Sunday's game, when Johnson went to trainers expressing concern that he had symptoms of a possible concussion. They ran tests and concluded that he was indeed concussed.

At this point, there is no indication on when exactly when he'll be cleared to return. With head injuries in this new, post-concussion litigation NFL world, teams are taking the slow, steady and sure approach. If Johnson ends up missing the type of time his recently concussed predecessors have, it could be a while before the Bengals see him again.

If the Bengals are without Johnson for the foreseeable future, expect adjustments to an already thinning defensive line. Particularly thin is the defensive end position, where veteran Robert Geathers has already been sidelined for the year with an elbow injury suffered in Week 2.

That same week, in the Bengals' Monday night win over the Steelers, Johnson was evaluated for another concussion when he landed hard on his head while he and a teammate wrapped up Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for a sack attempt. Johnson was cleared after a precautionary check-up and returned to the game.

Coincidentally, Johnson's concussion comes at the same time as the release of a book written by ESPN investigative reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru titled "League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth." The book outlines an apparent two-decade NFL campaign to deny a growing body of scientific research that showed a link between playing football and brain damage.

In the event Johnson's concussion keeps him out for an extended period of time, look for the Bengals to replace him with sixth-year backup Wallace Gilberry. The veteran has been part of Cincinnati's defensive line rotation all season. In the event the Bengals don't make any roster moves to bring in additional defensive linemen, rookie Margus Hunt could end up seeing playing time, too. He has been declared inactive for each of the first four games as the coaching staff tries to get the relative football newcomer up to speed to the NFL style of play. Hunt, a second-round pick out of SMU, didn't start playing football until his second year in college.

Then again, perhaps all of this is much ado about nothing. Just ask Bengals cornerback Brandon Ghee, who missed three weeks of the preseason and the first three weeks of the regular season with a concussion he picked up during the first preseason game. It was the second of his career. He finally was cleared to full participation last week, and even had what defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer termed an "OK" day against the Browns.

"I probably would have come back about three weeks ago or the beginning of the season if it wasn't for the concussion lawsuits and everything going on," Ghee said last Thursday. "But after the second one, you have to think about your kids and your family. You don't want any long-lasting issues. I guess it's all a good thing for the players."

The NFL last month settled its concussion case with former players for $765 million. Former players who have exhibited certain issues with respect to head traumas brought on by their playing days are eligible for compensation under the settlement.