Ready to rumble

ON THE RAVENS

Confident linebacker playing more aggressively

Jarret Johnson's improvement

August 12, 2008|By MIKE PRESTON

The fight was only a few seconds old, but there was already a mountain of humanity involved. Ravens outside linebacker Jarret Johnson started his run from 10 yards out and leaped on top of the pile with his face toward the sky.

Johnson's helmet was knocked off, and as he fell toward the ground, he laughed.

"Jarret is crazy but in a good sense," Ravens defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "He loves to compete, and he is having a lot of fun this year."

From training camp last season to the one in 2008, Johnson might be the Ravens' most improved player. He is definitely faster and covering a lot more ground. He is feistier and tied with rookie offensive tackle Oniel Cousins for the most fights in training camp.

And his energy level appears endless. He is buzzing around camp and talking trash. In a camp that has been one of the most physical in the Ravens' short history, Johnson seems to be having the most fun.

It wasn't that way a year ago, when Mr. Congenial was Mr. Uptight.

"It's not fun when you don't know what you're doing," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said, laughing at Johnson. "He knew the defenses because he studied his butt off, but he didn't know the pass routes. Obviously, he was behind because it was all new to him. You expect that to happen. It took two years for A.D. to learn those things."

A.D. is Adalius Thomas, the outside linebacker Johnson replaced in 2007. Thomas was the team's most versatile player. He could play defensive end or outside linebacker. He could line up at nose guard or inside linebacker.

In his first four seasons with the team, the Ravens had asked Johnson to do all of those things. But last year they asked him to be just an outside linebacker. Johnson started all 16 games and finished with a career-high 94 tackles, fifth best on the team.

And they've asked him to do the same thing this year, which is why he has been outstanding in training camp.

"Last year at this time, I was just trying to get comfortable," Johnson said. "I was starting for the first time, replacing A.D. This year is different. I want to produce, but I also want to make plays.

"When we need a play, I want to be one of those people they look to to make plays. When you play on a defense like ours with a Ray Lewis or an Ed Reed, there are certain expectations, and you have to play up to those expectations."

The change in his playing style is definitely noticeable. Last year, Johnson wasn't much of a pass rusher. In camp, he has been relentless trying to get to the quarterback and has a spin move that has worked extremely well.

Johnson has dropped from 270 pounds to 255 pounds. During his previous five years with the Ravens, he has worked extensively with Ryan on learning how to use his hands. Very few Ravens offensive linemen have been able to get into his body on running plays or get their hands on him while he's rushing the passer.

But Johnson refuses to take credit for his developments.

"We have a great front seven, and our defensive line dominates," he said. "Without them, our linebacking corps wouldn't be as good. They allow us to be patient, sit back and make good reads. Overall, if we stay healthy, I think Rex wants us to be more aggressive than a year ago."

Johnson certainly has confidence in his teammates, and himself. He is walking with a swagger compared with a year ago when he was considered the weak link of the defense.

Johnson has been pulling a lot of pranks in training camp and participating in a lot of fights, some real and some not.

A week ago, he faked a fight with good friend and tight end Todd Heap. The only problem is that no one told defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.

Ngata shoved Heap, and Heap started punching Ngata.

"We have this unwritten rule on defense that if you see someone throw a punch at one of us, we're going to pin our ears back and come at you," said Johnson, a nose guard at Alabama drafted in the fourth round by the Ravens in 2003. "Todd has a lot of guts, and he is a lot scrappier than a lot of people think. I felt bad for him messing with Haloti. But that's our style; we always want to be aggressive."

And the Ravens always want to make plays. This year, Johnson wants to be one of the playmakers.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

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