Overlooked coach has Ravens catching on

The Baltimore Sun

Ravens receivers coach Mike Johnson is the forgotten man.

Lost somewhere in the Ravens' new passing game is Johnson, the team's first year wide receivers coach who replaced David Shaw, who was fired at the end of last season. For the first time in eight years, the Ravens have a decent passing game and are developing young receivers, such as rookie Demetrius Williams and second-year player Mark Clayton.

The Ravens have the league's No. 15 passing game, featuring receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd Heap. Mason gets a lot of credit for working with Clayton during the offseason and Williams during training camp, but Johnson has made a strong impression with the receiving corps.

Before joining the Ravens, Johnson worked four years in Atlanta, first as the Falcons' wide receivers coach and later as the quarterbacks coach, tutoring Michael Vick. The Ravens play Atlanta tomorrow at M&T; Bank Stadium.

"Coach Johnson has a tremendous amount of energy and is extremely passionate as far as getting us to run precise routes," said Clayton, who leads the team in receptions with 41 for 502 yards and three touchdowns. "He has a different perspective. He sees things differently. When you have worked with quarterbacks, you understand how they think, and that has helped us."

The Ravens have gone through numerous receivers, from the "trash heap" game in coach Brian Billick's first year, to a first-round pick such as Travis Taylor in 2000. Until recently, none has panned out. The receivers coaches haven't hung around long, either.

Johnson has settled in, and is a stickler about fundamentals.

"He is very encouraging," Mason said. "He has really gotten the best out of each and every player in the room. Each and every day, there is some thing new to hone your skills. Whether it's a cone drill, or having us drop our hips, working back-shoulder throws or catching low balls, he makes us go through every conceivable situation on the field."

Turning the corner?

Veteran Samari Rolle still is the starting cornerback, but are the Ravens grooming rookie free agent Ronnie Prude to start if Rolle continues to struggle? Some team officials are pushing the idea.

Rolle has been victimized by several long passes this season, and teams have started to pick on him. Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan has been very supportive of Rolle, and believes he can play himself out of the fog. But at the same time, Prude, from LSU, has been impressive in nickel and dime situations.

Missed opportunity

It's a shame middle linebacker Ray Lewis probably won't play tomorrow because of a back injury. It would have been fun watching him compete against Falcons inside linebacker Ed Hartwell.

During his four years in Baltimore, Hartwell never liked Lewis. He thought Lewis was overrated and he was underrated. Hartwell also thought Ravens officials gave Lewis credit for some of his tackles (actually, they gave Lewis credit for everybody's tackles). One day after his last game in Baltimore in 2004, Hartwell publicly criticized Lewis while both players were cleaning out their lockers.

Earlier this week in statements to the local Atlanta media, Hartwell still seemed bitter about his time in Baltimore and playing with Lewis. It's a shame because that was nearly two years ago. It's time to move on.

A new link

Many fans would like running back Jamal Lewis to be replaced by Mike Anderson or Musa Smith, but Billick might be inclined to stick with Lewis because the two have communicated fairly well this season.

According to a team source, the scenario is completely opposite from a year ago when Lewis and Billick communicated with each other only through running backs coach Matt Simon.

Next up?

Billick hasn't said who will be his next offensive coordinator, but the consensus around the league and team is that it will be quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel. It just makes too much sense.

He promised the job to Neuheisel last offseason if Jim Fassel got a head-coaching job. If Billick doesn't hire Neuheisel, then it cost him two good coaches because Simon and former offensive line coach Jim Colletto left the Ravens because they didn't think they had a chance of becoming the team's next offensive coordinator.


Read Mike Preston's Ravens Central blog at baltimoresun.com/ravenscentral.

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