Double-j's Domain

Move From Line To 'Backer Made Johnson's Career

August 22, 2009|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,ken.murray@baltsun.com

Imagine Jarret Johnson's consternation the day the Ravens made him a linebacker.

He had just spent the offseason bulking up to 280 pounds to win a job at defensive tackle. The team had just lost Anthony Weaver to free agency. A starting position was on the line in the summer of 2006.

Then, at the start of camp, the Ravens told him he was a linebacker.

"I freaked. I was like, 'Are you serious?' " Johnson remembers.

As improbable as a move from defensive tackle to linebacker was, it was the best thing that ever happened to Johnson's blue-collar career. Three training camps later, he is a stalwart on one of the NFL's top defenses. And the turning point was that position switch.

On a defense that features marquee names such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Haloti Ngata, Johnson is a secret weapon. He is the guy you don't notice as much because he does most of the dirty work, blowing up double-teams and setting the edge on run defense.

Teams that underestimate Double-J, as he is known, will pay. He's better than good, better than solid, his coaches and teammates say.

"He doesn't have a weakness," said Vic Fangio, the team's linebackers coach. "He's better than just solid."

Last season, in only his third year at linebacker, Johnson became a playmaker. He was second on the team with a career-high five sacks, caused two fumbles and made 82 tackles. He triggered a 36-7 rout of the Philadelphia Eagles when he forced and recovered a fumble by quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Defensive tackle Trevor Pryce, who joined the team in 2006, praises Johnson's pass-rush ability on a defense that has other, more celebrated pass rushers.

"I think if he was in a four-man rush somewhere to rush the passer, he'd be Jared Allen," Pryce said, referring to the Minnesota Vikings' leading sacker. "He's never blocked. He comes off the ball fast and plays hard, play after play."

At 6 feet 3 and 260 pounds, Johnson is quicker than in his tackle days but still a force against the run. He's even more appreciative of the position move now because of the implications it held for his career.

"I honestly think if it wasn't for that move, I wouldn't be in the NFL right now," said Johnson, who has played in 95 of 96 regular-season games with the Ravens. "I couldn't maintain my weight. I'd come in at 285 and finish the season at 270 playing a five-technique defensive end. It was too hard on my body."

Johnson might not be at linebacker, either, if it hadn't been for a difficult 2005 season, when injuries depleted the Ravens' secondary and led to a 6-10 record. That's when then-defensive coordinator Rex Ryan designed the Steelers package that sent Adalius Thomas to safety and Johnson to linebacker, essentially to rush the passer.

"Where I got my versatility was in practice," said Johnson, 28, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003 out of Alabama. "I started playing a lot of positions, and by doing that, I learned all the positions. I learned every position in the sub [package] and every position in the base. That's what benefited my career; that and Rex having the foresight of seeing me play there."

What Fangio likes best about Johnson are his intensity, his intelligence and his willingness to do what it takes.

"That transition [from tackle to linebacker] takes awhile," Fangio said. "The biggest thing to overcome is playing in a two-point stance rather than a three-point stance, and on every play they've got to key and diagnose whether it's a run or a pass. If it's a pass, then maybe drop backward. Whereas a defensive lineman, everything he's ever known was a three-point stance going forward. That sounds simple, but it's not."

Fangio sees a lot of the attributes in Johnson that he saw in Pro Bowl pass rusher Kevin Greene, whom he coached with the Carolina Panthers in the mid-1990s.

"Jarret's exactly where he needs to be, with his body," Fangio said. "He's much better at 265 and playing on the edge of a defense. By standing him up, too, it enables him to utilize his intelligence and instincts more because he can see more. He's good at anticipating things.

"He's the kind of player the other players really respect because he's a real team guy, he'll do the dirty work, he'll bust his [butt]. His effort is top of the line. I think Double-J's career is still on the upswing."

Q&A with ... defensive tackle Justin Bannan

After last season when he made 15 starts for the injured Kelly Gregg and finished seventh on the defense with 56 tackles, Bannan took advantage of a blissful offseason before returning to camp and an unexpected roommate.

Question:: What's the best thing you did or best place you visited during the offseason?

Answer:: "My fiancee and I went to New York City, which was fun. We're from Northern California, so we went up to Tahoe, San Francisco and Napa and just traveled around enjoying life. Just having an offseason was the best. It was a long season last year, and we were all just drained. So it was good to have a break like we had."

Q:: What's it like rooming with outside linebacker Jarret Johnson?

A:: "The truth of the matter is, I was actually able to get my own room, but Jarret wouldn't leave my room. So I still have to room with him for one more week. I don't know why he still wants to be my roommate."

- Edward Lee

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