Speedy Johnson relies on stealth to play catch-up

Off-season training guides his pursuit of Ravens starting spot

August 11, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

His ability to catch the football consistently can be called into question, but no one can doubt Patrick Johnson's commitment to becoming a force at wide receiver.

Johnson means business. As a rookie and second-round draft pick of the Ravens last year, he took an unusual route by signing his first contract nearly a month before training camp. Forget squeezing his team for more money. Johnson preferred moving to Baltimore early so he could hit the weight room, dive into his playbook and settle in with his new teammates.

After a typical, up-and-down rookie season in which he dropped enough passes to find his way to the bench, Johnson worked nonstop on his game and his conditioning in his first off-season. He even built a custom-made video room in his Los Angeles-area home, where he has spent hours studying opposing defenses.

The question is, can Johnson combine his world-class speed and his meticulous preparation into a package that makes him an impact player in 1999?

The Ravens are eager to find out, beginning with tomorrow night's preseason opener in Philadelphia. So is Johnson, who turned 23 yesterday.

"I relish this game. I'm ready to play," said Johnson, one of a slew of wide receivers with a chance to win the starting job opposite Jermaine Lewis.

"I worked like a dog in the off-season. I've learned a whole lot. There's no doubt I've gotten better. I've worked so hard that it can't not work out. The only way I can show what I can do is by playing."

Johnson sounds antsy because that is his nature. His coaches don't ask Johnson for more effort. Instead, they ask him to ease up.

While working with Johnson during the team's two minicamps in the spring, when Johnson was introduced to the slot position, coach Brian Billick dubbed his receiver "my Tasmanian Devil," a reference to Johnson's nonstop, full-tilt manner.

It seemed Johnson was having a tough time adjusting his sprinter's pace while running routes inside. Billick asked him repeatedly to slow the tempo, find an open area and occupy it like a basketball player in the paint, wait for the pass to come to him and use his speed after the catch. That's not something Johnson learned while running post and fly patterns week after week at Oregon.

A steadier Johnson has emerged in training camp. The hands are looking more dependable than those shaky minicamp days. Just in time for the first dress rehearsal of what he envisions as his breakthrough season.

Johnson "has calmed down a little bit. He still has to show up in some key areas. He's still making some mental errors," Billick said. "Thursday night will be interesting. It's time to see how far he's come."

"From last year to this year, it's night and day," veteran receiver Floyd Turner said of Johnson. "He's caught the ball much better this year. He's not as anxious as he used to be. He's progressed a lot. We all knew he could run."

Can he ever. Before Johnson blossomed late on the football field in college -- he had a career-high 55 receptions and produced the second-highest all-purpose yardage total (1,831) in school history as a senior -- Johnson established himself as a track star.

An NCAA All-America sprinter in the 100 and 200 meters, Johnson played just one year of high school football before arriving at Oregon. As a freshman there at the age of 19, Johnson finished second at the Drake Relays -- ahead of Carl Lewis -- with a time of 10.26 in the 100.

"It's something you can't teach," said Ravens quarterback Scott Mitchell, referring to Johnson's speed. "It's a great weapon to have. You just have to know how to use it."

Oh, did Johnson learn that lesson as a rookie. After an outstanding training camp and preseason, Johnson ran into problems catching the ball in the regular season. Several times, in pressure, third-down situations, the ball slipped through his fingers. After dropping one against Jacksonville on Nov. 1, in a 45-19 loss, Johnson went to the bench.

And that was pretty much it for Johnson's offensive contribution in 1998. He helped the Ravens in the kick return game late in the season, especially against Minnesota on Dec. 13, when he raced 97 yards with a kickoff for a touchdown. Johnson finished the season with 12 catches for 159 yards and a touchdown.

"I had like four drops and all of a sudden I was a sorry football player," Johnson said. "But I feel like [getting benched] was a blessing. I came to terms with the fact that I needed to watch guys like Floyd [Turner] play. And that made me hungrier."

Ravens camp

When: Through Aug. 26

Where: Western Maryland College, Westminster

Today's practice times: 9: 30 a.m.-11 a.m.; 4 p.m.-5 p.m.

Directions from Baltimore: Take Interstate 695 to Exit 19 to I-795 north to its end. Follow signs to Westminster via Route 140 west to Route 31 south. At blinking yellow light, turn left (Route 31). At first traffic light, turn left on Main Street. Proceed up the hill. The parking entrance is on the left.

Information: 410-261-FANS

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