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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis underwent a minor surgical procedure to have a pocket of blood drained from his swollen back, and he appears unlikely to play in Sundayâ€™s game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Lewis’ medical situation sets the stage for the Baltimore front-seven’s versatile reserve swingman Jarret Johnson’s debut at inside linebacker.
A seven-time All-Pro, Lewis wasnâ€™t immediately ruled out and is still listed as questionable on the injury report. Lewis severely bruised his back Nov. 5 when he collided with safety Ed Reedâ€™s knee against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Team officials expressed hope that outpatient surgery performed Wednesday will allow Lewis to play perhaps as soon as next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but are no longer as optimistic about his prospects for the Atlanta game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I don’t know how much of a difference it will make for this week, but it’s my understanding that it will make a huge difference for him and we’ll see how he is at the end of the week," said Ravens coach Brian Billick in reference to Lewis’ surgery. "He’s made real progress, I think."
With Lewisâ€™ likely absence from the starting lineup for the second consecutive week, a rare starting opportunity beckons for Johnson.
Capable of playing outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle, the 6-foot-3, 270-pounder is preparing to operate next to inside linebacker Bart Scott.
Because of his size, strength and aggressiveness, the Ravens plan to use Johnson primarily on first and second downs while former practice squad member Dennis Haley fills in on obvious passing downs. Scott will move over a few yards to play Lewisâ€™ spot with Johnson occupying Scottâ€™s normal position.
Drafted in the fourth round out of Alabama in 2003, Johnson is the epitome of a blue-collar worker who thrives on contact.
The Ravens will need that physical presence against the Falconsâ€™ top-ranked rushing offense that features shifty halfback Warrick Dunn and ultra-mobile quarterback Michael Vick.
"It’s cool, it’s been different, but it’s part of the process," Johnson said. "Outside linebacker was definitely an easier transition than inside, but I’m kind of slowly picking up what we’re doing and gradually getting into it at inside linebacker.
â€œIâ€™m proud that I can know and play more than one position, because it means the coaches believe in you and arenâ€™t afraid to give you a chance to show what you can do.â€
This marks Johnsonâ€™s second position conversion in as many seasons.
He completed his transition from defensive line to outside linebacker last year when Dan Cody blew out his knee during training camp, and has primarily played standing up ever since. In four seasons, Johnson has started at four different positions.
â€œHeâ€™s a very astute and intelligent guy, so heâ€™ll have no problem making adjustments,â€ Scott said. â€œHeâ€™s shown me that already in practice. With Jarret, you know heâ€™ll work hard, bust his butt and take the coaching so he can get it done.
â€œItâ€™s nice that heâ€™s a big guy, too, because he can go be the fullback for me. Iâ€™ll scrape and get the running back.â€
During last weekâ€™s 27-26 win over the Tennessee Titans, the Ravens threw Haley into the mix out of sheer necessity because Lewisâ€™ backup, Mike Smith, partially dislocated his shoulder during the first five plays. He responded with nine tackles and two pass deflections.
With Johnson’s reputation for being technically sound and physically tough as Baltimore takes on a rushing attack that averages a league-high 198.9 yards per game and 5.7 yards per carry, the Ravensâ€™ major concern is his lack of experience and mobility in pass coverage.
â€œMy teammates are going to help me out and let me know what Iâ€™m supposed to be doing,â€ Johnson said. â€œIf Iâ€™m not used to doing a certain thing on a play, Bart can just go, â€˜Youâ€™ve got this.â€™ Heâ€™s been the biggest help.
â€œWhat makes it hard is having to read the entire line and backfield now whereas before I was reading a few guys to get my reads. Itâ€™s definitely a challenge for me, but I like challenges.â€
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.