OWINGS MILLS – The Baltimore Ravens have no intentions of allowing Tennessee Titans speedster Chris Johnson to transform a football game into a track meet.
And the Ravens are wary of reading much of anything into the most recent game tape of the star running back, aware that isn’t the vintage Johnson who eclipsed the 2,000-yard rushing mark two seasons ago when he was named the NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
Although Johnson rushed for only 24 yards on nine carries in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars to open the season, the Ravens attribute that uncharacteristically pedestrian total to his lengthy holdout prior to signing a $53 million contract extension that included $30 million in guaranteed money.
“He’s what they call their home-run hitter,” said All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis as the Ravens prepare for Sunday’s road game at Tennessee. “He’s their offense, he’s their heartbeat. If you look at what they did last weekend, I think he had just nine carries.
“So, you’ve got to know that he’s definitely going to touch the football a lot this week. And we’ve prepared for it. It should be a great test for us. When you talk about just skill and talent, he’s a special, special talent.”
Smaller than most running backs at 5-foot-11, 191 pounds, Johnson ran the fastest time at the NFL scouting combine when he entered the league out of East Carolina with a scorching 4.24 clocking.
Last year, Johnson rushed for 1,364 yards to rank third in the AFC one season removed from his career-high 2,006-yard campaign.
Ravens cornerback Chris Johnson is a former teammate, and he’s convinced there’s no swifter player in the NFL.
“I think he’s the fastest player in the league, I think that’s fair to say,” Carr said. “I remember his rookie year, him telling me he was running 4.3s with a vest on, and I believed him. There’s nobody faster than him.”
One game into his fourth NFL season, Johnson has already gained 4,622 yards and scored 34 touchdowns with a career average of 4.9 yards per carry.
He’s already the third-ranked rusher in Titans franchise history, trailing Eddie George (10,009 yards) and Earl Campbell (8,574 yards).
Only Eric Dickerson (2,105 yards), Jamal Lewis (2,066 yards), Barry Sanders (2,053 yards) and Terrell Davis (2,008 yards) have rushed for more yards in a single season than Johnson.
Despite the Ravens ranking eighth against the run with a stout front seven anchored by defensive linemen Haloti Ngata and Terrence Cody, outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and Lewis, the Titans hope to get Johnson back on track against Baltimore.
“We’d like to see him get to 20 carries or 20 touches,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said. “We’re not as concerned for his conditioning as we are just getting him a feel for the run game again.”
The Titans fell behind 13-0, and essentially abandoned the run as they tried to catch up.
Johnson averaged only 2.7 yards per carry, catching six passes for a mere 25 yards.
“Probably the first week is more attributable to the business part of this whole deal, and we fully expect that he will get the ball 20-30 times in the game,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “There’s no doubt he’s one of their big playmakers. Chris is going to be the guy who is probably going to be the focal point. They’ve said that already.”
During the Ravens’ last game against Johnson, he rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown prior to being forced out of Baltimore’s AFC divisional playoff win with an ankle injury. He gained 100 all-purpose yards and was on pace for a huge game before getting hurt.
Now, he’s coming off the third-worst game of his young career.
"You could blame it on the whole offense,” Johnson said. “We didn’t stay out there on the field and do what we were supposed to do and keep the drive going. I wasn’t as tired as I thought I’d be. I can do more carries and things like that. I actually felt good out there.”
The Titans are counting on that.
They’re 17-7 when he hits the century mark for rushing yards, 18-5 when he runs for a touchdown.
To contain one of the most dangerous running backs in the game, the Ravens plan to build a human wall at the line of scrimmage to prevent him from hitting stride.
The Ravens have allowed a league-low 31 rushing touchdowns and the third-fewest rushing yards per game with an 84.5 average dating back to the 2006 season.
“You’ve got to have an edge, we always say on our defense: ‘No edge, no chance,’” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “If you let him get outside.. The longest plays in football happen down the sideline. We can’t let that happen.”
RAVENS DENY TRYING TO HURT CJ2K: The Ravens reacted strongly to Tennessee Titans star running back Chris Johnson, denying his accusations that they intentionally tried to injure him during a playoff game three seasons ago.
Johnson left the Ravens’ 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win during the 2008 season with an ankle injury after rushing for 72 yards in the first half.
"Ain’t nobody trying to deliberately hurt nobody out here," Ravens Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told 24×7. "We’re all athletes, we’re all in the same league. Nobody tried to hurt him. He can get that out of his head."
Added outside linebacker Jarret Johnson: "I don’t remember trying to hurt him. He’s trying to get motivated."
It definitely didn’t bother Ravens All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata that Johnson was unable to finish the game, though. Not with Johnson piling up 100 all-purpose yards in the first half.
"I’m happy he left the game, because he was on the verge of breaking off 200 yards against us," Ngata said. "He did really well in that first half, and I think it’s a good thing he went down, because he probably would have had more yards.
"I don’t even think we were playing dirty, I just think we were playing the way we usually do. I was just happy he was out of the game, because he was having a really good game against us."
Johnson told Tennessee reporters that he felt like the Ravens were trying to hurt him during tackles.
"They were trying to hurt me a little bit," Johnson said. "But the play I actually got hurt on, it was a fair play, somebody landed on my ankle the wrong way and I fell back the wrong way. It was a fair play when I got hurt."
However, Ngata attributed Johnson’s remarks to sour grapes.
“I think they’re just upset they lost, really,” Ngata said. “I have no idea. I have no reaction to it, I just think we’re going to go out and play Ravens defense. If somebody’s complaining about it, we’re going to get fined or it’s just nothing to complain about. They’re just trying to make excuses, really.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano defended the Ravens’ aggressive style of play.
"They’ve been playing a certain brand of football and defense here for a long, long time, so I don’t take offense to it," Pagano said. "It’s just how we roll. It’s our brand of football. It’s straight-up, it’s clean, it’s physical. We try to impose our physical and mental will on people. There’s going to be some casualties. That’s just the way we play.”