Ravens' Johnson finds his place

Linebacker making big plays, 'having the best year of his career' in sixth season

December 06, 2008|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Every NFL team should have a Jarret Johnson. Every good team does.

That's a dedicated tough guy, physical and smart, selfless and committed.

A guy you can always count on to do the dirty work.

That was Johnson's profile on the Ravens before he became one of the defense's biggest playmakers this season. The sixth-year veteran from Alabama - where he was the university's only two-time captain - has finally found his niche in Baltimore's tenacious defense.

"I think he's having the best year of his career," outside linebackers coach Mike Pettine said. "I don't know if there's a guy we have that has a better football aptitude, understands blocking schemes, understands routes, understands protections."

Make no mistake: Johnson, 27, still is assigned virtually all the dirty work on defense, like taking on two blockers to open a rush lane for someone else or going through the tight end and running back to get to the quarterback.

"We give him a lot of things [where] his sole job is to look around and contain the quarterback," Pettine said. "We call it the 'as far as you know' position. Like, 'you'll sack the quarterback as far as you know.' "

Fact is, Johnson has sacked the quarterback five times this season, second on the team behind Terrell Suggs. He is fourth in tackles and first in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.

On his most spectacular play of the season, he knocked the ball loose from Donovan McNabb in the pocket and caught the carom in stride for a big momentum-turning play against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Those big plays aren't by accident, but they are not exactly by design, either, defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said.

"He's taking advantage of the plays that are out there," Ryan said. "When he makes a play, he's having to beat somebody. It's not schemed up for him to be a free-hitter."

Johnson has taken advantage of every break he's gotten in the NFL, starting when he was taken in the fourth round of the 2003 draft as a defensive tackle.

Thanks to his dedication, passion and athleticism, he made the transition from a physical player with his hand in the dirt to a stand-up linebacker who can drop into pass coverage or rush the passer. He learned on the job, playing behind one of the team's dynamic defensive stars, Adalius Thomas.

When Thomas left as a free agent after the 2006 season, Johnson inherited the position and the scrutiny that came with his new job.

"He kind of had that big shadow on him from AD [Thomas]," defensive tackle Justin Bannan said. "But if you watched what the guy did, it was great. This year, he's really come into his own. He's so much more comfortable with what's going on. He's got it figured out."

Said defensive end Trevor Pryce: "I think he has a better understanding of what his role is. Instead of trying to do too much, he just does what he does very well."

That is, play hard, play smart, minimize mistakes. Johnson said the difference a year makes is experience and a better comfort zone.

"Last year, because I was a new starter, I kind of had a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I wasn't that experienced at the position, so I would go into games so wired that I was playing well, but at the same time I made mistakes I shouldn't have been making.

"This year, I don't really have a chip on my shoulder. It's been a lot more natural position, and there are far fewer mistakes than last year."

Pettine said Johnson can play every position in the front seven, including nose tackle, which he does for one or two plays a game. And as for a comparison to Thomas, Johnson fares pretty well.

The only thing Thomas did that Johnson can't is cover the elite tight ends of the league man-to-man. But Johnson's versatility as a former undersized defensive tackle enables him to be used in a variety of ways on third down, from playing nose tackle to nickel back to end in the pass rush.

"We have full faith in him now that we could give him any of those jobs," Pettine said. "Coming into the season, we said we can't have Jarret play 1,000 plays; that's too much. [But] we can't get him off the field. He's too valuable."

Said Ryan: "I think he's just taken his game to an even higher level because he was a good player last year and right now, he's fantastic."

Notes: : The Madden Cruiser, with NBC's John Madden and entourage, arrived at Owings Mills yesterday to watch practice and conduct interviews for tomorrow night's game against the Washington Redskins. Madden caused something of a stir in the team's indoor facility. "I know I was looking over there and saying, 'Hey, that's John Madden,' " coach John Harbaugh said. ... Also touring the facility was the Garrison Forest Elementary class of wide receiver Derrick Mason's daughter. Bailee My-Lin Mason is 9. ... Left tackle Jared Gaither (shoulder), safety Ed Reed (thigh) and cornerback Samari Rolle (thigh) had limited participation in practice, but all are expected to play. Running back Willis McGahee suffered from migraines and is listed as probable.

REDSKINS (7-5) @RAVENS (8-4)

Tomorrow, 8:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 5

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