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Bengals hunting for Johnson’s replacement at defensive end

To get an idea of how the right side of the Cincinnati Bengals defensive line may look – and perform – this year without end Michael Johnson, simply take a look back at one of the unit’s best performances of last year.

Forced to play their Week 5 game against the New England Patriots without the services of Johnson, who suffered a concussion the week before to end his streak of 71 consecutive games played, the Bengals held the New England offense to just two field goals in a 13-6 victory, snapping New England quarterback Tom Brady’s streak of 52 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.

Wallace Gilberry made one of his two starts of the seasonand finished with 1.5 sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble, while rookie Margus Hunt made his NFL debut and played what would end up being a season-high 40 snaps.

With Johnson suiting up for Tampa Bay this year after signing a five-year, $43.75 million free-agent contract, the onus will fall on Gilberry and Hunt to match the production Johnson gave the Bengals for five seasons.

“At the end of the day, I’m comfortable with what I can do and what I can contribute,” Gilberry said. “I’m ready to turn it up this season and this offseason, so we’ll see how it goes.”

Gilberry has been a key player in the defensive line rotation since Cincinnati signed him off the street three weeks into the 2012 season. In 30 games with the Bengals, he has 14 sacks, including 7.5 last year to share team-high honors with left defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

Hunt, on the other hand, is still a work in progress as a football neophyte.

The Bengals took a chance by grabbing the 6-foot-8, 280-pound Estonian in the second round last year, knowing he had never played organized football until coming to America to attend SMU on a track scholarship four years prior.

Because of that, not much was expected of him other than to use his rookie season to learn the playbook and the intricacies of the position, something he said he is continuing to work on heading into his second season.

“I just need to learn the defense a lot better,” Hunt said. “Last year was just this is this, and this is this. I had to learn during the season as well. But it was good. I felt like I got caught up pretty fast.

“I had a couple good games,” he added. “I didn’t get a lot of playing time over there, but as the season went on I started getting more and more.”

As the season wore on, the Bengals started throwing more at Hunt, using him on the interior of the line instead of solely at end. Asked if it was almost too much, too soon, he admitted it was.

“I was just about to start getting what I need to do as a defensive end, and then it all kind of collapsed on itself because I had to be sure I knew what to do inside and how to play the inside position,” Hunt said. “Last year the whole 4-3 system was new and what the defensive end had to do with some of the drops and some of the reads. It was just a lot of information.

“But a lot of time in the playbook really got me on track. Now I don’t feel it’s a lot to put on me. I’ve had a year behind me.”

Already blessed with incredible strength, Hunt said he spent some time boxing this offseason to work on his conditioning in anticipation of playing more in 2014.

Whether he’s asked to start or sub at end or see more time inside instead, Hunt said he will be ready.

“We’ll see how it works out,” he said. “Wallace had an unbelievable year last year. He was playing his heart out. It will be fun. They’re my teammates and we’re a family, so whatever happens, happens. The main thing is we want to win, and we want to win bad.”

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