OWINGS MILLS — There’s a strong rumor traveling around the Baltimore Ravens’ training complex that an unsubtle visual reminder has been posted in one of the team meeting rooms.
It’s apparently a photograph of Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, who figures to be a marked man in Sunday’s season opener. He’s the last man to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark against the Ravens’ traditionally stingy defense.
"I was here when he did that on us and we need to make sure we stop him," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. "I haven’t seen the photo, but it’s here somewhere."
It has been an NFL-high 35 consecutive games since the Ravens’ defense allowed an opposing runner to hit the century mark.
And Johnson is the latest target after rumbling for 120 yards on 23 carries during a 20-10 Baltimore victory at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 10, 2006.
Despite being shadowed constantly by All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Johnson still had his moments the last time he played against the Ravens.
"To me, I take it as a great honor because that’s a great defense that I was playing against," Johnson said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "As long as they have Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, then I still have a certain respect for them. It was obviously a great game, but it still hurt me more after the game because of the fact that those guys didn’t give me an inch and they hit me most every play.
"It was funny, it was kind of a cat and mouse game with Ray Lewis. You have to stay in there and run hard and stick it in there. It may not be pretty. I only had one long run, but I was running into Ray Lewis for three yards, four yards, five yards. By the end of the game, it magically came out to 100 and some yards.”
The Ravens have built their reputation on the foundation of stuffing the run.
Last year, the Ravens had the second-ranked defense overall and ranked third in rushing defense by allowing just 81.4 yards on the ground per contest.
Over the past decade, no NFL team has allowed fewer 100-yard rushers than Baltimore’s total of 18. And the Ravens are determined to shut Johnson down this time.
"Nah, we don’t believe in that," Lewis said of opposing backs trying to rush for 100 yards. "So, something’s got to give. That’s just something that we understand, bottom line, as a defense that you don’t let anybody come run the ball on you. That’s all in your heart and in your will. We’ve been good at that around here, so, hopefully, we can contin ue that Sunday. ..
"He’s probably one of the best backs in the league, give or take having a couple of up-and-down games, up-and-down seasons. The bottom line is he plays the game the way the game is supposed to be played. They like to run the ball, and we like to stop the run. That’s what you really grab from this type of battle."
Over the past few years, there have been a lot of signs of decline as well as troubling off-field problems with Johnson since he rushed for 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2006 to follow his 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005.
Signed to a six-year, $45 million contract in 2007 that made him the highest-paid runner in the NFL, Johnson gained just 559 yards in 2007 and managed only 874 yards and five touchdowns last season.
He was suspended for one game last year by the Chiefs for violating team rules. He was benched for another. And he was suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for an additional game.
Arrested four times in the past six years on various assault charges involving women, Johnson was arrested in 2003 for felony aggravated assault and misdemeanor domestic battery for allegedly waving a gun during an argument with a former girlfriend. The charges were dropped when he participated in a domestic violence diversion program.
Another assault charge in 2005 where Johnson was accused of pushing a woman to the ground was dropped when the alleged victim didn’t show up for court hearings.
Last year, Johnson was arrested again for allegedly spitting a drink in a woman’s face at a Kansas City nightclub. He pleaded guilty earlier this year and was sentenced to two years of probation.
Johnson has remained out of trouble since that incident and said he has rededicated himself following the regime change to new coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli after the firings of Herm Edwards and Carl Peterson.
"Yeah, I think it’s a fresh start for me," Johnson said. "Those guys came in with the understanding that they were going to go off of my work ethic, and I think I proved to them that me working in the offseason was enough to have me still be a part of this football team."
"He had an off year last year, obviously, for a bunch of different reasons," Haley said. "But I think he’s worked hard, and I think he’s excited for this season to start."
The Ravens are particularly challenging to run the football against because they feature a big, strong defensive line with nose guard Kelly Gregg and Ngata as well as active, aggressive linebacker corps headlined by Lewis, a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"I don’t know that you can be more physical than they are, I really don’t," Haley said. "So, you have to figure out ways to move the football against a defense that really doesn’t want you moving it. It starts with 52 in the middle. I think you would have your work cut out for you, trying to be more physical than them."
Since 1999, the Ravens have allowed an average of just 87.3 rushing yards per game.
"We’ve always said our defense is based on No. 1 stopping the run," new defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. "It tells the character of your team, it tells the toughness of your team, and so we don’t ever want anybody to feel like they can run the football on us.”
During the last game against Kansas City, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs taunted Johnson after knocking him out of bounds following a long run.
Johnson, who’s friends with rapper Jay-Z, is known for flashing "The Roc" or the "Diamond dynasty" symbol with his hands following a touchdown.
And Suggs flashed the symbol in front of Johnson. Then, he turned it upside down in a display that he jokingly called the ultimate sign of disrespect.
"No, I don’t remember, that was a long time ago," Suggs said with a laugh. "A lot has happened since then. I was a young man, and I tried to grow up.
“So, I’m putting all that behind me. You need to get rid of some of those memories. I’ve talked to Larry, and we’re on good terms. So, it should be a good, fun game.”
As far as Johnson is concerned, there are no lingering hard feelings.
He’s simply looking forward to a physical football game.
"It didn’t get me mad," Johnson said. "It just got me more excited that, ‘OK, this is the type of game that I’m looking for.’ And for somebody that I respect as far as Terrell Suggs to do that, what’s so funny about that is we ran into each other Super Bowl weekend after that season, and he was like, ‘Man, are you mad at me?’
“I was like, ‘No, I’m not mad at you.’ He thought we actually had like some type of beef off the field, but it was just being competitive, and I expect him to be like that this Sunday.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.