Linebacker kicking butt and taking names

WESTMINSTER -- Jarret Johnson has cut a wide swath at training camp since arriving in Westminster two weeks ago with his fists balled up and ready for combat. The Baltimore Ravens' pugilistic strongside linebacker has squared off with several teammates in skirmishes at McDaniel College.

Those fights have included a short bout with tight end Todd Heap, one of his closest friends on the team.

When it comes to football, Johnson is deadly serious. His hard-nosed, hard-hitting approach to the game means never asking for and receiving any quarter.

That physical style has paid dividends for Johnson as the Florida native enters his second year as a full-time starter. His game has been punctuated by a series of sacks and tackles.

"When you come in and join this defense, Rex Ryan will talk with you and tell you, 'When you wear that uniform, you're a Raven and you have to play like one,'" Johnson said. "If you can't represent the Ravens, you need to go somewhere else."

Last season, Johnson recorded a career-high 94 tackles and two sacks while starting every game despite being hampered by a broken thumb for most of the year. He tied defensive tackle Haloti Ngata in tackles, finishing fifth on the NFL's sixth-ranked defense.

He has registered 238 career tackles, five sacks, three forced fumbles and one interception.

Yet, the former fourth-round draft pick from Alabama exited last season feeling that he didn't quite live up to his own standards as the replacement for former All-Pro linebacker Adalius Thomas. Thomas signed with the New England Patriots following the 2006 season, and the Ravens signed Johnson to a lucrative six-year contract.

Although Johnson played well, he didn't approach Thomas' impact and versatility.

"Last year was my first year really starting and contributing to the defense, and this year I want to take it to the next level," Johnson said. "I want to make more big plays this year. I was disappointed I couldn't make more of those last year."

A year ago, Johnson completed his conversion from a college defensive end to a full-time NFL linebacker. Operating out of a two-point stance, Johnson's comfort level was obvious when he attacked the line of scrimmage in run support or rushed the passer. Yet, he wasn't nearly as fluid in pass coverage.

The plan this year is to have him try to penetrate the backfield and be more involved in the blitz package.

Ryan referenced how it took Thomas a year to settle in as a linebacker before his game truly blossomed.

"I think you're seeing that with Jarret, too," Ryan said. "He's never dropped back in his life. We all love his physicality and aggressiveness, but his coverage was okay last year.

"Now, it's really getting good this year. He's really understanding route concepts better. We're excited. Of course, you know you're going to get one of the premier outside run players in Jarret. Now, as a pass defender, he's really getting good."

Johnson's college pedigree as the only two-time captain in Alabama football history is unquestioned.

With 23 career sacks, he only ranks behind the late Derrick Thomas in school history and also ranks second all-time with 25 tackles for losses. The Ravens grade players on every snap with a plus or minus, and Johnson has received sterling grades for quality and consistency.

"I don't think he's had many minuses," coach John Harbaugh said. "He has played very well."

One reason Johnson has been sporting his game face is the disappointing fall the defense took last season one year removed from being ranked first in points and yards allowed.

As the Ravens dropped to 5-11 and last in the AFC North, they also finished 22nd in the NFL in scoring defense with an average of 24 points allowed per contest. Injuries were a major factor, but that wasn't the only reason for the downward spiral.

"Last year, we may have gotten a little cocky just expecting to be the No. 1 defense in the league," Johnson said. "When things got tough, we didn't play to our standards.

"This year, we know what we've got to do and know what made us so great two years ago and what it takes to be that good again. If you don't work that hard, you're going to slip a little bit."

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


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