Johnson arrives, Ravens hope passing game improves

OWINGS MILLS — The Baltimore Ravens' passing game is akin to a reclamation project, and Kevin Johnson could represent a major part of the blueprint.<br><br> Lacking a proven wide receiver following a nullified trade for All-Pro Terrell Owens, the reigning AFC North champions executed a trade during the draft for Johnson. <br>

Now, they're hoping that the presence of the former Cleveland Browns standout will eventually discourage defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to try to bottle up Pro Bowl runner Jamal Lewis

Baltimore had the lowest-ranked passing game in the league last season as Travis Taylor led the wide receivers with 39 receptions and three touchdowns. Johnson will start at flanker and Taylor will move to split end.

"Everybody's aware of our need at that position," offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh said Wednesday. "We're going to expand the passing game, as everybody is dying to see.

"He's going to complement Travis Taylor, take a little bit of pressure off of him, which in turn would take a little pressure off of Todd Heap, in turn, take a little pressure off of Jamal Lewis. The ultimate goal is to take pressure off of me, so I think it's going to work out very well."

The Ravens' averaged 140.9 yards passing per contest last season while Lewis gained a league-high 2,066 yards.

Johnson, 27, has caught 332 passes for 4,089 yards and 24 touchdowns in five seasons.

"The majority of the pieces are already in place," said Johnson, who sported a purple dress shirt to go with his Ravens cap. "If I can just be a little piece of the puzzle to help these guys get to the Super Bowl and get that ring, that's what the purpose is."

Johnson caught 84 passes for 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns in 2001. He has averaged 66 receptions per year.

"One thing about Kevin Johnson, you throw him the ball, he catches it," Baltimore quarterbacks and receivers coach David Shaw said.

Under coach Brian Billick, the Ravens' top statistical showing for a receiver was Qadry Ismail's 74 receptions for 1,059 yards and seven touchdowns in 2001.

Last season, Johnson caught 58 passes for 634 yards and three touchdowns.

Cavanaugh said it will take a changed approach to convince defenses that Baltimore is willing to throw more. He said the Ravens passed just 32 percent of the time on first down last season, about 15 points below the league average.

"That doesn't mean we are going to throw the ball 40 times a game, but we have to bring better balance to downs and distances," Cavanaugh said. "A guy like Kevin is what we need out there to help us do that."

Johnson was expelled from the Browns' organization last November amidst complaints about his alleged selfishness, unwillingness to block and being overly concerned with his statistics.

"It was just a relationship that unfortunately went sour," Johnson said. "I wasn't in the plan. I was not the only guy run out of town."

When asked about the Browns' criticism of his blocking, Johnson said he actually had developed a reputation for cutting defensive backs' knees out from under them.

"I think that was an excuse," Johnson said. "I think I was just a scapegoat."

The Ravens were one of 16 teams that placed a waiver claim for Johnson, who was acquired by Jacksonville, the team with the worst record of the claimants, for the final six games of the season.

"This is a team that I really wanted to be with," Johnson said. "Every time I played in this stadium as a player with the Browns, we looked at the Ravens as the bullies.

"They always tried to just intimidate guys, and it's just amazing that now I can be on this side of the street."

Johnson is under contract for two seasons with an average salary of roughly $1.4 million. He would have been a third receiver this season in Jacksonville after the Jaguars drafted Reggie Williams in the first round.

In Baltimore, he's an instant starter next to Taylor.

And he'll face his former employers in September to open the season at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

"They aren't going to hate me because a lot of guys respect me over there and I think the fans respect me," Johnson said. "I think it's going to be a bittersweet moment."

Aaron Wilson writes for the Carroll County Times.

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