Texans' Johnson a 'big challenge' for Ravens secondary

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OWINGS MILLS - At 31 years old, Andre Johnson's production is down and he's been criticized for a declining physical skill-set.

Long considered one of the NFL's premier wide receivers, Johnson is off to one of the slowest starts of his 10-year career.

Yet, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard insists the Houston Texans' receiver is as dangerous as ever.

Baltimore travels to face Johnson and the Texans Sunday in Houston.

"Andre is still a monster," said Pollard, a teammate of Johnson with the Texans from 2009-10. "Right now, he's not getting the touches... but I know Andre's still a monster and he's still capable of dominating a game single-handedly. He's still one of the biggest receivers in the NFL that can still run as fast as the smallest receivers in the NFL."

A five-time Pro Bowler, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Johnson has tallied at least 100 catches during each of the last three seasons he's played in all 16 games, but he missed a combined 12 games due to injury in 2010 and 2011 - nine in 2011 - and has battled a nagging groin injury through the early part of this year.

He had eight catches for 119 yards and a touchdown in the Texans' season-opening win against the Miami Dolphins, but was limited to three catches or less in each of Houston's next four games prior to catching eight passes for 75 yards in last week's loss to the Green Bay Packers.

He's on pace to finish the season with 67 catches for 955 yards, which would represent the lowest 16-game output of his career in both categories. He's also on pace for just five touchdowns.

Johnson has been on the field for just 80 percent of the Texans' offensive snaps this year.

"Andre's coming off a couple of years with some injuries and he did miss a lot of training camp, so we are bringing him along a little different this year than we have in the past," Houston coach Gary Kubiak said. "We are limiting some of his plays during the course of a game. My biggest goal for Andre is to have him available for this team 16 times this year and try to keep him healthy.

"I thought he played real well last week and I think he's getting better each and every week."

And he'll now be matched up against a Ravens secondary in its first game without top cornerback Lardarius Webb.

Second-year player Jimmy Smith will step in for Webb opposite incumbent starter Cary Williams.

Baltimore is ranked 22nd in the NFL against the pass.

Williams called facing the "physical, wide-bodied" Johnson a "big challenge" for the Ravens secondary.

"He's still the same guy," Williams said of Johnson. "He still has the ability to move and still has the ability to go up and get the ball. That hasn't changed at all."

Added Pollard: "Andre's still explosive. He's still powerful. The guy can make plays all over the field. And when the ball's in his hands, he's capable of going and get in the end zone for his team."

But Johnson isn't the only Texans pass-catcher Baltimore is wary of heading into Sunday.

Tight end Owen Daniels leads Houston with 26 catches for 357 yards and a team-high three touchdowns.

The Ravens have struggled at times against opposing tight ends, most notably Philadelphia Eagles tight end Brent Celek (eight catches, 157 yards) in Week 2, Cleveland Browns tight end Ben Watson (five catches, 52 yards) in Week 4 and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten (six catches, 88 yards) last week.

"Owen [Daniels] is really a receiver," Pollard said. "The dude is a special talent at the tight end position. ... He's a person that we need to have our eye on at all times. He's another guy that's very capable of taking over a game."

Johnson and Daniels are two of four Texans pass catchers with 15 catches or more.

Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is a two-time 4,000-yard passer.

"They have a very capable group, a group that can go out and make plays," Williams said. "They're highly talented and are just guys that can go out there and play at a high level."

Reach staff writer Matt Zenitz at 410-857-7896 or Follow him on Twitter @mzenitz.