Numbers don't do him justice. In an understated NFL career, what you get with Jarret Johnson is more than the sum of his parts. Give the Ravens linebacker a hard hat and a ball-carrier, and you have a tackle waiting to happen.
Johnson has 250 tackles in 52 regular-season games since inheriting, in 2007, the position held by Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas. He has 10½ sacks in his last 28 games, two interceptions in his last seven games.
Not bad for a player who started in the NFL as an undersized defensive tackle, then moved out to a play-making position on the edge of one of the best defenses in the league.
But the number of the week — indeed, the number that best reflects Johnson's career — is 100. On Sunday, against the Cleveland Browns in M&T Bank Stadium, Johnson will play in his 100th consecutive regular-season game for the Ravens, a streak that stretches back to December 2003, his rookie season.
It is the third-longest streak in Ravens' history behind Peter Boulware (111), Matt Stover (110) and Terrell Suggs (105, ended last season). Even the unassuming Johnson was impressed when he learned about the upcoming milestone this week.
"That's a lot of games," he said with a sheepish grin. "It's hard to get that many games in a row."
Johnson has missed only one game his entire career, when he was inactive for a Dec. 21, 2003 game at Cleveland. It was a coaches' decision, apparently aimed at giving Johnson a brief rest. Counting the postseason, he has played in 106 straight games for the Ravens, starting the last 55.
Johnson's durability underlines his determination to play through injuries, and not insignificant injuries, either. A year ago, he tore his right labrum in training camp — an injury that would require surgery in the offseason — and then had an AC joint sprain in the left shoulder in Week 2. Because the Ravens are secretive about injuries — like all teams — no one knew the extent of his handicap.
But he didn't miss a start, and became the fourth Ravens linebacker to amass at least 70 tackles, five sacks (he had six) and two interceptions in one season.
In 2007, he played with a broken thumb and put up a career-high 94 tackles.
It's the kind of stuff that wins over teammates and coaches. It didn't take long for defensive coordinator Greg Mattison, who joined the team in 2008, to recognize Johnson's value.
"In 38 years of coaching," Mattison said recently, "he may be the most physical, toughest football player that I've ever been around. And I can say that [because] … truly, I and the rest of the coaches will watch tape and we'll say it each time: That's how a Raven plays. Jarret Johnson does it every practice, every snap, every time he is supposed to do it."
On a defense filled with tough guys, Johnson stands out. Nose tackle Kelly Gregg needed labrum surgery in the offseason, too. The two players had procedures done by the same doctor in the same Birmingham, Ala., on the same day.
"He went home [after the surgery] and I stayed the night [at the hospital]," Gregg said. "I was miserable in the hospital. … I was all drugged up. I don't know how he made it through the night.
"But he's tough."
Last week, Johnson missed two practices after tweaking his back in Wednesday's practice, two days after playing in the Monday night opener. He was listed as questionable, but started and contributed four tackles.
"By the end of the game, I was pretty tight, pretty stiff," he said. "But I wasn't feeling awful."
The Ravens know they can count on Johnson, week to week, snap to snap. He gets his share of the dirty work on the defense, banging against tight ends and tackles, even dropping into coverage at times.
Linebacker Ray Lewis likened him to a "construction worker" on the Ravens' gritty defense.
"He's just going to always come to work," Lewis said. "He doesn't have that glamorous job … he just loves doing what he does. And anytime that you can play with a warrior like that, there is no greater reward when you actually get to play alongside somebody like that. His wherewithal — his knowledge of the game and how many adjustments for me and him that we have to make and really talk out — he's just so big a piece for our defense."
First-year linebackers coach Dean Pees said Johnson's work ethic was his best attribute. When Pees was defensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, he would watch tape of various defenses around the league for ideas.
"When I'd watch him, I could have guessed exactly what he was like — effort guy, tough guy, comes to play," Pees said.
What Pees has come to appreciate is Johnson's intelligence and understanding of the structure of the defense. Like other instinctive players, Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003, has a strong grip on why things happen on the field and the ability to anticipate how the offense will attack him.
"It's not memorization … 'Well, the coach told me to do this,'" Pees said. "There are things that are always going to happen on the field that you haven't prepared for, or a coach didn't tell you, and you've just got to understand, 'this is what they're doing,' and then adjust to it. He's great at that. Very, very rarely he ever makes a mental mistake."
Said Gregg: "He's one of our smartest players. He's got stuff you just can't teach. And he's going to fight you for every inch out there on the field."
Trevor Pryce likes to tell the story of his first season with the Ravens in 2006. Trying to learn a new defense, Pryce needed Johnson to tell him before every play which gap to hit and where to go. Pryce delivered a career-high 13 sacks that season.
Johnson still makes calls to get the defensive front aligned properly. He isn't flashy, and doesn't celebrate on the field after sacks, but he remains true to his tough-guy character.
"Everybody's got to have their role, their edge, what makes them special, because we have a thousand different personalities that have rolled through here all these years," Johnson said. "You've got to have something that defines you. And that's what has always been what's defined me … maybe not the great plays, but just being consistent and being opportunistic."
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