A star-less start for Bengals

GEORGETOWN — There was no Chad Johnson, no Rudi Johnson, no Jeremi Johnson. There was no T.J. Houshmandzadeh, no Kenny Watson, no Antwan Odom, no first-round draft pick Keith Rivers, all either held out or holding out.

“We've got to get those guys back out here,” Cincinnati Coach Marvin Lewis said.

There weren't quite as many bodies in the stands either, the high price of gasoline no doubt thinning the caravan of Ohio plates down I-75, turning the usual overflow crowd for the Cincinnati Bengals' annual training camp scrimmage at Georgetown College into merely a rollicking full house Friday night, estimated at 7,100.

So, with the big stars out, time for the lesser lights to shine.

And shine did Brandon Johnson, the third-year middle linebacker from Louisville and free agent from Arizona, who was all over the field, grabbing backs in the backfield, making open-field tackles, putting on a show.

“Let's just say Brandon took advantage of the opportunity at the right time,” said Lewis, noting the absence of Rivers, the expected starter in the middle.

Shine did wide receivers Antonio Chatman and Jerome Simpson, battling to win the third wideout spot vacated by knucklehead Chris Henry. Chatman, the six-year veteran, made a diving 21-yard touchdown catch of a pass from Carson Palmer. Simpson, the rookie and surprise second-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, caught a 43-yard touchdown from backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

“Those were two nice plays,” Lewis said.

Shine did defensive tackle Michael Myers (two sacks), free-agent rookie cornerback Simeon Castille out of Alabama, and sixth-round draft pick Corey Lynch, the safety from Appalachian State, who picked off a Jordan Palmer pass on the final play of a scrimmage won by the defense 44-27.

“Lynch showed what he did in college, which is make plays,” new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “But really his best play wasn't the interception. It was that third down when he made the tackle on the sideline.”

Indeed, on a third-and-four at the 24, when Carson Palmer hit Chris Perry on a swing pass, Lynch closed and wrapped to keep the offense from moving the sticks.

“We tell the guys all the time, you've got to take your shot,” Zimmer said. “But on that play, he doesn't have anyone backing him up if he misses the tackle. And he took the shot and made the tackle.”

That's the thing about these scrimmages. The crowd — decked out in Carson Palmer jerseys and Chad Johnson jerseys, snapping pictures, pining for autographs ­— is looking for the big names. The coaches are looking at the no-names, the ones trying to win roster spots, the ones that could help a mediocre seven-win team blossom into a 10-win playoff team.

For that to happen, most believe the Bengals have to find more names on defense. Signing Odom, a pass-rushing defensive end, was a start. But the former Tennessee Titan suffered a sprained left foot in the very first practice.

Taking Rivers in the first round out of Southern Cal was also supposed to help. But the No. 9 overall pick has yet to agree on a deal and has missed the first week of camp.

Still, even with several offensive stars missing, the defense impressed.

“They did what I asked them to do,” said Zimmer, who spent last year in the train wreck that was Atlanta. “Stopping the run is very important, and it looked like we defended the run pretty darn well.”

Even if the best Bengal runners weren't on the field.

“It was a step in the right direction,” Lewis said. “But we've got to keep going.”

And get some of those stars back on the field.