Rudi Johnson: 'He's a downhill runner'

OWINGS MILLS -- Traditionally, Rudi Johnson runs like a runaway bull: ill-tempered, unimpeded and unstopped. The Cincinnati Bengals' workhorse running back prides himself on winning physical encounters. Especially how he trucked Baltimore Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis on a short touchdown run last season, steamrolling Lewis onto his back.

"I take a licking and keep on ticking," Johnson told Cincinnati reporters. "I keep playing until the final whistle blows."

Sometimes, though, even the bull gets the horns. Which has often been the case for Johnson against the Ravens' stingy defense.

As the Ravens prepare for Monday night's season opener at Paul Brown Stadium, virtually all of the conversations have centered around the high-profile matchup between the NFL's top-ranked defense and the Bengals' flashy passing game headlined by Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson.

Johnson has largely been forgotten, which is a mistake.

Over the past three seasons, Johnson has rushed for 1,309, 1,458 and 1,454 yards with exactly a dozen touchdowns every year.

He has eclipsed the three-year rushing mark of Corey Dillon, rambling for 4,221 yards, and his 36 touchdowns ranks only behind former Bengals Pete Johnson and Carl Pickens over a three-year period.

On 1,271 career attempts, Johnson has rushed for 5,245 yards, 45 career touchdowns and a 4.1 average per carry.

Since 2004, his first year as a featured back following Dillon being traded to the New England Patriots, Johnson leads all NFL running backs with 1,039 attempts.

The native of Chester, Va., has the numbers, and the Ravens' full respect.

"Yeah, he's definitely a downhill guy," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "He's not the biggest guy, but he runs big. When you hit him, you feel it. He's a thick guy."

Not as thick as before, though. This is leaner, meaner runner that has the Bengals' faithful chanting his name: 'Rudi! Rudi! Rudi!'

Johnson has dieted down to 214 pounds from a high of 235 pounds as a rookie out of Auburn. He has adopted a strenuous training regimen and a strict protein diet with plenty of vegetables.

The essence of Johnson's approach is to outwork, outhit and outmuscle opponents.

"That's my game, it's why I train so hard," Johnson said. "I am ready to play every game, week in and week out. I have to be ready and fresh whenever my number is called."

Added Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski: "He's the best he's ever looked in the entire time he has been here. He really has taken good care of himself the past two years, and it shows. He's stronger at the end of the game than he is at the beginning. We're going to have to lean on him a little more than we thought we would."

That's because of a season-ending knee injury suffered by rookie running back Kenny Irons during training camp.

However, you won't hear any complaints from Johnson about an increased workload. He simply shrugs his bulky shoulders and keeps on pounding straight ahead.

"He's a good runner, I didn't expect him to be that explosive," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "He impressed me last year. He impressed a lot of us. He just explodes on people, I think he does that very well."

The Ravens had the league's second-ranked rushing defense a year ago, holding opponents to 75.9 rushing yards per contest.

Although Johnson rushed for 77 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown in the Ravens' 26-20 win in Baltimore, he managed to gain just 47 yards on 16 carries in the Bengals' 13-7 win in Cincinnati.

"We respect him, but he benefits a lot from their passing game," linebacker Bart Scott said. "He is a very hard runner, and you have to respect a guy who runs for 1,000 yards every year."

In 10 career games against Baltimore, Johnson has rushed for just 515 yards, four touchdowns and a 51.5 average. His career-best performance against the Ravens was 114 yards with two touchdowns in a 2005 win.

There might be a good reason why he hasn't always thrived against Baltimore outside of the Ravens' obvious defensive prowess.

Johnson might be a victim of his unwillingness to avoid contact, and the swarming Ravens' crisp tackling.

"I think we do better against one-directional guys," Johnson said. "We're able to be more aggressive. Sometimes, we struggle against more patient runners. He's a load, so it's going to be interesting to see how he does against us."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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