OWINGS MILLS — It’s extremely rare to hear the Baltimore Ravens’ vaunted defense pay this much respect to an opposing skill player, a nod of distinction for a unique talent.
As the Ravens prepare to face the Houston Texans on Sunday at Reliant Stadium, guarding imposing wide receiver Andre Johnson is first and foremost on their minds.
Johnson is regarded as one of the top vertical threats in the game, blending ideal size and a track and field background with soft hands and a physical nature.
The 6-foot-3, 223-pound former University of Miami star leads the NFL with 834 receiving yards, ranking second overall with 60 receptions and is averaging a league-high 148.3 yards per contest at home.
Johnson has been named to the Pro Bowl twice and has caught 120 passes for 1,685 yards and 11 touchdowns over his past 17 games.
"If there was a receiver that I was worried about or that really raises some concern and raises my eyebrows, it’s definitely this one," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "He’s the man-child. When he’s out there playing and he’s at the peak of his game, he’s a man playing with boys. A good defense is going to show up down there on Sunday, or he’s going to show why they call him the man-child."
Although cornerback Samari Rolle is expected to return this week following neck surgery to repair a bulging disc in his neck suffered against the Cleveland Browns in the second game of the season, he’ll be at a severe size disadvantage against Johnson. Rolle would be giving up roughly three inches and 48 pounds to Johnson.
Johnson has literally towered over smaller cornerbacks this year, catching the football over their heads even when he has been covered well. He has converted 73.3 percent of his receptions for first downs.
"Bigger, stronger, faster and has great hands, run-after-the-catch ability is tremendous," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Vertical, downfield catch ability is tremendous. So, he’s the total package as a receiver.”
A former Big East Conference champion in the 100 meters and 60 meters, Johnson is elusive and fast enough to average 13.9 yards per catch with 10 receptions of 20 yards or more.
"Andre is a dominant receiver," Ravens free safety Ed Reed said. "Andre has been making plays since he’s been in the league. He’s definitely one of the elite receivers in the league."
Added Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan: "He can do it all. He’s huge. He’s definitely a weapon. He’s a difference-maker."
Johnson is also modest, acknowledging that he doesn’t consider himself quite at the pinnacle of NFL receivers yet.
"I definitely feel like I’m one of the top guys, I’ve always said that I would never consider myself the best until I put up numbers," Johnson said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "I haven’t put up a 1,500-yard season or anything like that. That’s what all the elite receivers do. I haven’t done that yet."
Johnson is the Texans’ all-time leader with 431 receptions, 5,638 receiving yards and 28 touchdown catches.
Texans coach Gary Kubiak, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback coach, compared Johnson’s work ethic favorably to a Hall of Famer.
"As a worker, he reminds me of Jerry Rice," Kubiak said. "I was in San Francisco with Jerry, and I watched how he went about his business every day and how he practiced. That’s the way Andre works."
Johnson’s career-best season was two years ago when he registered 103 catches for 1,144 yards and five touchdowns.
Since Kubiak arrived, Johnson has averaged 7.5 receptions and 103.6 yards during home games and the Texans have a 12-5 record when he’s on the field at home.
"Best receiver in the league right now, hands down," Rolle said. "No weaknesses: strong, tough, physical, good hands, good route and they get him the ball."
The Minnesota Vikings were somewhat effective at containing Johnson in a 28-21 victory last week with double-coverage techniques, but he still caught four passes for 62 yards and a touchdown.
Common strategies for trying to limit his impact have included using bigger players to jam him at the line of scrimmage, or sliding out a linebacker to try to take away the quick slant.
"It affects your game," said Johnson, noting that his No. 80 jersey is called out loud by defenders when he breaks the huddle. "It definitely frustrates you, but you just have to keep playing and let the game come to you."
With cornerback Chris McAlister sidelined with a right knee injury, the Ravens are likely to use Reed to give assistance over the top to try to curtail Johnson’s opportunities downfield.
The Ravens could also employ Suggs to jam Johnson at the line of scrimmage, which he did against Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson earlier this season.
"I’m a football player, I like hitting people, regardless," Suggs said. "I don’t know if it’s in the game plan. It’s not in yet, but if I get the opportunity, I get the opportunity."
"Teams have tried to defend him every way you can defend him," Harbaugh said. "You can put a guy on his nose, you can put a guy over top, you can play him in and out, you can slice guys out from the inside and cover him every way. He does a good job pretty much of attacking everything. We’ve got our plan, and we’ll know where he’s at all times."