Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson can tell when running back Rudi Johnson is humming because of a high-pitched sound that comes out of his collisions with defenders.
"You judge a running back off that sound they make," Anderson said recently. "They're not going, 'Ugh,' they're going, 'Bah.'
"For a safety or a cornerback, that sound scares them. When a guy has a high sound like that, he usually keeps going forward."
The Bengals want to hear that sound Sunday when they visit the Ravens at M&T; Bank Stadium. Johnson, 5 feet 10, 220 pounds, can move like a halfback, run with the power of a fullback and thrives on collisions like a linebacker.
"We think he is a fine player like the rest of the people around the league think he is a fine player," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "He's just someone who was unknown until last year. But he has been given opportunities, and he makes the most of those opportunities. He is a very powerful man. He makes guys miss in the hole and gets stronger as the game goes on."
There's more. Johnson has gotten stronger as the season goes on. In Cincinnati's 58-48 score-a-thon win against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, the Bengals had 504 yards of total offense and 26 first downs. Johnson had 202 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
He now has 1,049 yards rushing on 248 carries for the season, the first time he has gone over 1,000 yards in four NFL seasons. Dillon, a former Bengal, may have been born again this season in New England, but no one is missing the often-disgruntled runner in Cincinnati.
Johnson, who had 957 yards rushing while sharing the job with Dillon last season, might reach his goal of more than 1,500 yards.
"It feels good," Johnson said of escaping Dillon's shadow. "I'm happy to see him doing well, and he's happy to see me doing well. He taught me to just play hard, to play tough."
Anderson said: "He's getting better at making guys miss, because guys know he wants to punish you and run hard downhill. Once he continues to keep getting that little wiggle in his game when he gets downfield in the secondary, that's when the big runs will come."
Lewis said he isn't concerned about big runs. He wants a steady, thumping, thriving force to complement the passing of second-year quarterback Carson Palmer. Earlier in the season, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was often criticized for bailing out on the run too soon and trying to survive on the arm of Palmer.
Lewis said that isn't true. He wanted a philosophy similar to the Ravens' in 2000, when he was defensive coordinator here. He wants to win with defense and a balanced offense, but running the ball is a No. 1 priority.
"People say that, but penalties got us away from the run, or being behind got us away from the run because of an interception or whatever," Lewis said. "We want to run the football and make plays down the field in the passing game. I think we're doing a better job right now of making first downs, which is the key in not only winning the game, but making it a shorter game."
"You can see the same pattern he had in Baltimore," Johnson said. "You have to have a good running game to be successful in the NFL."
The Bengals apparently have found their man in Johnson. They thought enough of him last season to offer him a one-year tender last May of $1.8 million. They like his work ethic and his modesty. He doesn't do any dancing or posturing after a touchdown, just flips the ball back to the officials.
The last time the Bengals played the Ravens, on Sept. 26, Johnson rushed for 98 yards on 23 carries. Three running backs have rushed for more than 100 yards against the Ravens this season, and Johnson has gotten better as the year has gone on.
Johnson expresses tremendous respect for the Ravens' defense, and the respect from the Ravens is mutual. They'll get after each other again Sunday with some great head-on collisions.
"A good running back is a quarterback's best friend," Palmer said. "If you don't have a running game, your play-action stuff doesn't work, and there's a lot more pressure on you. But when you've got a guy like Rudi and an offensive line like we've got, we're going to be in a lot of situations where it's easy to get first downs just because Rudi does such a good job of moving the chains and not falling backward. He's always falling forward."
And making that distinctive sound.