Imposing, dangerous and explosive, Houston Texans star wide receiver Andre Johnson never strays far from the thoughts of the Baltimore Ravens' defense.
Although his season has been marred by hamstring injuries that sidelined him for nine games, Johnson is regaining his form at just the right time.
He caught five passes for 90 yards and a touchdown during the Texans' 31-10 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC wild-card round. That marked his first score since September.
Now, the 6-foot-3, 226-pounder is the Ravens' problem to account for during Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"He's a beast, there's no way around it," Ravens rookie cornerback Jimmy Smith said. "Dude's my height, bigger than me, stronger. We definitely have our hands full, but that's what we're here in the NFL for. That's my challenge.
"He's a game-wrecker. He can score at any point in the game when he gets his hands on the ball. So, you've definitely got to strategize for him. You've got to double-team that guy."
Johnson was out for the Ravens' 29-14 victory earlier this season in Baltimore and was limited to a career-low 33 receptions for 492 yards and two touchdowns in just seven games.
The last time the Ravens squared off with Johnson, they didn't come close to containing him as they narrowly escaped with an overtime victory last season at Reliant Stadium. He piled up 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
"Andre is a game breaker," said strong safety Bernard Pollard, who played for the Texans last season. "He's a player who demands a double-team, who demands a triple-team. We all understand what he's been doing in this league. Now, it's time for us to come up and play. We know we got a superstar lining up on the outside, so we've got to show out."
With Johnson's blend of size, speed and toughness, Johnson provides quite the downfield threat.
He's slowly starting to regain his explosiveness
"I feel pretty good," Johnson said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I haven't had any setbacks in the past couple of weeks. I've been feeling pretty good. I've been going full in practices, so I expect to be playing at a high level on Sunday.
"At times, I don't feel like I'm explosive as I was before I had the surgery and everything. As weeks go on and the more I do, my explosiveness is starting to come back. I think that's just going to come back with time."
Still, Johnson is the first player in NFL history to record at least 60 receptions in each of his first eight NFL seasons.
That includes three seasons where he exceeded 100 receptions, including a career-high 115 catches for 1,575 yards and eight touchdowns in 2008.
"Andre Johnson is the man," said fullback Vonta Leach, a former Texan. "Andre Johnson creates mismatches. He opens up stuff for other guys.
Johnson registered a career-high 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009 when he caught 101 passes.
And Johnson has averaged 79.1 receiving yards for his career, highest in NFL history for players with at least 100 games.
"He's one of the best receivers in the NFL," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "Anytime he's on the field, it's going to be a threat. Huge vertical threat, but he can run all the routes. He's not just a guy that can get up the field."
For his career, Johnson has caught 706 passes for 9,656 yards and 52 touchdowns. That's 13 more catches and 41 more yards than Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in two less games than him.
And Johnson led the NFL with 93.5 yards per contest last season despite missing three games with an ankle injury.
"He has it all, man," said Lardarius Webb, who's likely to draw the pivotal assignment of guarding Johnson. "He's just a complete wide receiver. He's physical, he's strong, he's quick, he's fast and he has ball skills. We have to know where he's at on every play.
"He's a game-changer. He could change the game right now. He's very important to that offense, along with Arian Foster. We have to bring our A-game with this guy, because he's the complete package. It's going to be a challenge, and I'm up for the challenge and ready to play ball."
Johnson is the second-fastest player to reach 700 catches in NFL history behind former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
And he reached the 9,000-yard receiving milestone as the sixth-fastest player in NFL history behind Lance Alworth, Torry Holt, Randy Moss, Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison.
He's also exceeded 1,000 receiving yards in five of nine NFL seasons
"We'll have to keep an eye on him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's the guy who makes the plays even if you keep your eye on him or not. He's always going to be a problem. He's a great player. He's one of the premier players in the league. We're going to have to do a good job of playing our defense."
The Ravens have contained some of the more dangerous wide receivers in the league this season, including Cincinnati Bengals Pro Bowl rookie A.J. Green.
Just three wide receivers exceeded the century mark against the Ravens' third-ranked defense, including the Bengals' Jerome Simpson, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Antonio Brown and the Tennessee Titans' Kenny Britt.
Johnson is no ordinary receiver, though. And the Texans plan to get him the football, targeting him nine times against the Bengals.
"He's a beast," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. "He's a freak. He's big, he's tall, he's fast. He's got a huge catch radius. He's a great competitor."
Notebook: Ed Reed playing through pain
OWINGS MILLS – During the final days of the NFL lockout in late July, Baltimore Ravens free safety Ed Reed couldn't have felt better.
Sitting on a hill at his youth football camp in Reisterstown, Reed said he had built up his muscles to the point where the nerve impingement in his neck was no longer bothering him.
The rigors of the NFL season, though, have taken a considerable toll on the health of the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
He has missed at least one tackle for each of the past four games, dealing with a painful shoulder injury that's affecting his deltoid muscle while also contending with the nerve impingement that has plagued him for years.
"Football, man," said Reed when asked what happened to his body since July. "You're going to have bumps and bruises, man. I have yet to miss a game this year, so be it."
Reed was unable to bring down Cincinnati Bengals running back Bernard Scott on a 25-yard touchdown run during the Ravens' regular-season finale as he busted through an arm tackle attempt. He also couldn't bring down tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Reed said he's doing all he can to deal with his health issues.
"It takes a lot," Reed said. "I work at it with my doctor who helps me every week. I'm getting treatment every week. The trainers do an amazing job. It's being smart.
"It's part of being a professional, understanding you can't be doing certain things and take care of your body. One, being drinking. You got to be smart about what you're doing. Guys take care of themselves, getting massages, whatever it might take."
Reed acknowledged that his shoulder has been bothering him, which he first mentioned to the Times following the Bengals game while denying that was the reason he missed the tackle on Scott.
He said he doesn't think he'll need to have surgery to repair the damage after the season.
"It's amazing what these guys do for years," Reed said. "People put themselves at risk playing this game. Your body goes through a lot. It's a lot you have to do to stay healthy. I commend these guys for what we've been through as a team battling through injuries this year physically.
"It's tough as football players, but this is what we signed up for. Guys have been playing this game for a long time. We understand the value of taking care of your body and it trickles down to the young guys. They understand and they take heed to what we do."
Reed is down to three interceptions this season after picking off eight passes a year ago.
However, Reed attributed his reduced production to teams avoiding throwing in his direction.
"He's arguably one of the best players to ever play the safety position," Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson told Houston reporters. "You have to know where he's at on the field at all times because he is definitely a guy that can pick one off and take it the distance and change the momentum of the game. You definitely have to know where he is at all times."
INJURY UPDATES: Ravens inside linebackers Brendon Ayanbadejo (sprained right quadriceps) and Jameel McClain (sprained medial collateral ligament) were limited in practice Thursday.
McClain wasn't listed on the Wednesday injury report, which may have been an oversight since he got hurt against the Bengals.
The Ravens also added offensive guard Marshal Yanda (bruised ribs) to the injury report, listing him at full participation.
Also participating fully: wide receiver Anquan Boldin (knee surgery), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Jimmy Smith and safety Tom Zbikowski (concussions).
Limited for the Houston Texans: offensive guard Mike Brisiel (ankle), tight end Owen Daniels (hand, knee), wide receiver Andre Johnson (hip) and safety Troy Nolan (ankle).
Full participation: linebacker Mister Alexander (shoulder), cornerback Jason Allen, linebacker Bryan Braman (neck), defensive end Tim Bulman (calf), fullback James Casey (knee, foot), nose guard Shaun Cody (knee), tight end Joel Dreesen (knee), cornerback Sherrick McManis (ankle), center Chris Myers (knee), linebacker Brooks Reed (knee), offensive tackle Eric Winston (calf) and quarterback T.J. Yates (left shoulder).
FAMILIAR TERRITORY: A former defensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina, Chuck Pagano is familiar with Yates.
He was a freshman when Pagano was on the Tar Heels coaching staff in 2008 before later going on to be drafted in the fifth round last April by the Texans.
Now, Pagano and Yates will face each other in Sunday's AFC divisional playoff game.
"He was in a pro-style offense there, so he was trained to do what he's doing now," Pagano said. "It doesn't surprise me that he's having the success that he's having,. Again, he's surrounded with a ton of talent. They can run the football, which takes a ton of pressure off him. He's always got backs and tight ends to check it down. He's doing a really good job
"He was just a young guy in a new system making his way, and watching him from afar after leaving after a year and watching his maturation process and seeing how far he's come, he's done really good for himself. I'm proud of the kid."
Pagano downplayed whether his familiarity with Yates will be a factor Sunday.
His conclusion: "Maybe understanding his strengths and weaknesses maybe a little more, but what we see on tape is what we're going to get."
FIRED-UP: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron acknowledged that he enjoyed quarterback Joe Flacco playfully jousting with critics this week.
"That stirred everybody up a little bit," Cameron said. "It's really no surprise to us, because we are around him all the time. We just get to see Joe for who he is. Maybe you guys are just getting to see that. The one thing that I just remember, shaking Joe's hand when we went to Delaware to work him out, and I just looked at him, and his dad was there. I said, ‘You know what? This guy is for real.' He wasn't trying to put on.
"I've been through a million of those kind of workouts where you can tell that guys, that's not really who they are. One thing I have loved about Joe is Joe is who he is. He's not afraid to speak his mind. I think that's why he has done so well and has just continually improved. Look what this guy has done. I know he's excited about this game. Criticism, he knows is part of the deal. My man obviously deserves some credit, because he is one of the best I've been around."
Flacco has gone 44-20 as a starter, never missing a start in four seasons.
He passed for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions this season.
Still, he has his share of detractors.
"I guess I don't get a chance to read all of that stuff," Cameron said. "And really we can't get too hijacked by that stuff. Bottom line is I think the world of Joe Flacco. We drafted him at the right place for the right reasons.
"If you do your homework, you can see the greatness in this kid. We're just fortunate. We get to see him a little bit differently than you guys do. So you guys are a little surprised by that, and we're not. So, welcome to Joe Flacco."
QUICK HITS: Special-teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg praised Texans return man Jacoby Jones, who doubles as a speedy wide receiver, and safety Danieal Manning.
"Their return game is highlighted by two very good returners," Rosburg said. "Jacoby Jones is a very fast receiver, and he translates that into return game. If you get him in his space, he's one of those guys that can break pursuit angles. He's one of those guys that will beat the edge when the edge looks to be contained, so it's our job to keep him contained. Danieal Manning hasn't had a lot of experience, because he was in Chicago when they happened to have a pretty talented returner [Devin Hester]. He's a very skilled player as well. He runs hard. He's very aggressive. We've got our hands full. Our guys have been practicing well, and we look forward to the challenge."
The Ravens allowed three returns for touchdowns this season, something that hasn't happened since the 2002 season. "We've had our moments," Rosburg said. "We see individual progression. We see concept progression. We still make mistakes, and we have to eliminate those mistakes against good teams like we're playing this week."
The Ravens nearly had a few punts blocked against the Cincinnati Bengals as the protection for punter Sam Koch broke down. He narrowly avoided having punts blocked. Rosburg said the problem has been recognized. "Yes, we did indentify it and we've been working on it," Rosburg said. … Kicker Billy Cundiff made a 42-yard field goal against the Bengals in his lone attempt since returning from a left calf injury. The team felt comfortable enough with Cundiff's progress to cut kicker Shayne Graham last week, and Rosburg said Thursday that he's "been kicking well in practice."
Cameron praised the Texans' pass rushers, including Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
"It's funny, these are guys I remember hearing our defensive coaches talk about before the draft," Cameron said. "They've drafted well. Again, an extremely talented team. You're not one of the top two or three defenses in this league on scheme alone, even though I do have a lot of respect for] Wade Phillips and the job that he does. He is doing great, I think, with really, really good players. All those guys athletic, play hard, smart. All of them were outstanding college players. So, we're very familiar with these guys. This is a team that has had everybody's attention the whole year. Houston is not sneaking up on anybody. We know the quality of the team that is coming in here to play." Cameron singled out rookie defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bengals last week. "What a play," Cameron said. "That didn't surprise any of us. Here is another player that I remember our defensive coaches just raving about before the draft. If he'd have batted that down, that would have been a heck of a play. To not only catch it, then run it for a touchdown, that changed that game. I saw that one in person. That changed that game, and that's what these games are coming down to – guys making plays. When they do, then when you can take them and turn them into points, it makes it, obviously, that much better." … Cameron attended the Texans' playoff win over the Bengals, scouting it in person by sitting in the stands at Reliant Stadium.
"Somebody just asked me that, and it's funny," Cameron said. "The first time I went and watched another team play was actually, I was with the Redskins. Came over in 1996 to watch the Ravens play. I had the Sunday off, came up and watched them play. I have just done that for years. I usually take my boys, maybe my daughter to a game. Now when you go scout in person, there is not much to it because you get the digital video, you get the TV copies, you get all the stats, all those things, and you see four preseason games plus a bunch of other games. Honestly, I go as a fan. I never went to a pro game as a kid. Any chance I get to go to a game, much less an NFL game, as a fan, I am going to go."
Cameron has been struck by how well Boldin has been moving in practice. "To me, he has always looked good," he said. "It kind of caught me by surprise when he did have his knee [injury], but he is back ready to go. I think he is really excited to play."
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