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OWINGS MILLS — Adalius Thomas no longer lurks in Baltimore, leaving a defense bereft of an athlete who shadowed receivers, blitzed quarterbacks and decked running backs shocked that a man so large could react so quickly.
The multi-dimensional All-Pro linebacker signed a $35 million contract with the New England Patriots in March.
Now, the NFL’s top-ranked defense is charged with replacing Thomas’ extensive versatility. It’s a daunting task that primarily falls to one man.
Meet Jarret Johnson.
He’s the rugged, bearded former backup with the thick Southern accent who ascends into Thomas’ old job, and he’s a different type of football player. Johnson is considered to be more adept at stuffing the run than operating in pass coverage. And the former fourth-round pick from Alabama isn’t as fast or as accomplished at rushing the passer as Thomas.
Yet, the Ravens have a lot of confidence in the Florida native and proved that by rewarded him with a six-year contract virtually simultaneous to Thomas’ exit.
“He has got to replace a great football player, there’s no doubt about it,” defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said in June at the Ravens’ training complex. “Adalius was a tremendous player for us, we don’t hide that fact. It’s not all going to fall on Jarret Johnson even though we are comfortable with that.
“Jarret is a smart guy, tough, dependable, durable and mean. He plays to our mentality. So, we’re excited about the things Jarret can do in a full-time role.”
Like Thomas, Johnson is a converted defensive lineman with an aggressive, physical approach. Unlike Thomas, though, Johnson won’t be lining up at cornerback across from Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro wideout Chad Johnson anytime soon.
Johnson is a decidedly less flashy alternative to Thomas, but his grit and intelligence should ease the Ravens’ transition into the post-AD era.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Johnson said. “I know it’s a challenge, but I’m up for it and I’m excited about the opportunity. Well, I’m not the same player that AD is obviously. He can do more things in pass coverage.
“I can do the pass coverage thing, but my game is more geared toward the run, probably not the back-end stuff like he can do. But I am also a versatile player who can do some things along the line. We are two completely different players, but we have some similarities.”
One trait both players carry besides competitiveness is the capability to line up at several positions. Johnson can play inside or outside linebacker as well as defensive end or even defensive tackle in a pinch.
He registered 35 tackles and 1 ½ sacks in two starts last season after recording a career-high 61 tackles in 2006.
Only a few years ago, Johnson was somewhat awkwardly finding his way around his new home at linebacker after years of grappling in the trenches.
“Night and day, I had very little knowledge,” he said. “I knew where to be, but I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. Today, I know where to go and why I’m there.”
Within the locker room, Johnson’s promotion hasn’t caused concern. Veteran defensive end Trevor Pryce even said that Johnson was one of the best players he’s ever been around.
“He’s going to be a major contributor,” cornerback Chris McAlister predicted.
Johnson was notably leaner at minicamps having lost about 10 pounds, also sporting a buzzcut.
“I knew I was going to be standing up on my feet and little bit more and not as much having my hand in the dirt,” Johnson said. “I wanted to lose a little bit to be able to move a little better.”
While the Ravens have faith in Johnson’s abilities, he’s not going to be alone in taking on Thomas’ old set of responsibilities.
Expect Johnson to operate extensively on first and second downs with many of Thomas’ coverage duties now going to athletic inside linebacker Bart Scott. Ryan has also experimented with safety Gerome Sapp lining up at linebacker in nickel packages.
“It’s going to fall on a lot of guys,” Ryan said. “It’s not just going to be all on one guy’s shoulders.”
Johnson has an easygoing reputation, but did bristle slightly at the suggestion that the defense is going to take a step backwards without Thomas’ high-profile presence.
“A loss like AD is huge to the defense, but we always find a way to replace that loss,” he said. “To second-guess us just because we lost AD is just not an educated thing. We have proven that we can lose guys and still be successful on defense.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
Photos by Sabina Moran

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Aaron Wilson

About Aaron Wilson

Aaron Wilson covers the NFL for National Football Post as well as the Baltimore Ravens for The Carroll County Times and Ravens24x7.com. He has previously covered the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans and has covered the NFL since 1997.  He has won several regional writing awards, including, most recently, Best Sports News Story for the state of Maryland in voting conducted by the Associated Press managing editors.  More from Aaron Wilson


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