Chris Johnson's underwhelming performance last Sunday has given critics plenty of ammunition, but the Ravens are expecting the Tennessee Titans running back who rushed for more than 2,000 yards in 2009 when they meet on Sunday.
"We fully expect him to get the ball 20 to 30 times in this game," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said on Wednesday. "There's no doubt he's one of the big playmakers. They've got two excellent wide receivers, three playmaking tight ends, they've got a physical offensive line and a veteran quarterback who has won a lot of football games and knows how to distribute the ball to all those guys. But Chris is going to be the guy that's probably going to be the focal point, and I think they've said that already."
Johnson may be two years removed from being named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, but he is still one of the the most dangerous offensive threats in the AFC and perhaps even the league.The Ravens haven't forgotten their last meeting with Johnson when he totaled 100 yards of offense (72 rushing and 28 receiving) in an eventual 13-10 AFC divisional playoff win to cap the 2008 season before leaving the second quarter with an ankle injury.
"I'm happy he left the game because he was on the verge of breaking off 200 yards on us, I think," defensive tackle Haloti Ngata recalled. "He did really well in that first half, and I think it was a good thing he went down because he probably would have had more yards."
Many emerging running backs have watched their numbers drop against the Ravens run defense, but inside linebacker Ray Lewis sounded appreciative of what Johnson has done.
"He is the one threat that they call a home-run hitter," Lewis said. "He is the offense. He's the heartbeat. If you look at what they did last week, I think he just had nine carries. So you've got to know that he's definitely going to touch the football a lot this week. And we're prepared for it. It should be a great test for us, but when you talk about just skill and talent, he is a special, special talent."
Since being selected by Tennessee in the first round of the 2008 draft, Johnson has rushed for 1,228 yards in 2008, 2,006 in 2009 and 1,364 in 2010. He became just the sixth player in NFL history to eclipse the 2,000-yard mark, and he has compiled 34 rushing touchdowns over that same span.
Johnson, however, has felt that his accomplishments went unrewarded and he held out of training camp for 35 days in the preseason to begin discussions on a contract extension. He was finally rewarded with a $53.5 million extension.
But Johnson came out flat in Tennessee's season-opening 16-14 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, gaining just 24 yards on nine carries. Titans coach Mike Munchak said falling behind the Jaguars -- and not Johnson's holdout -- played a role in his limited playing time.
"We obviously want to run the ball much more than that," Munchak said during a conference call with Baltimore media on Wednesday. "They were keeping the ball. We couldn't get them off the field. Our defense couldn't get them off the field – they kept converting third-and-ones, third-and-twos, and we were running out of opportunities with the ball, so we had to pick it up and throw it when we got down 13-0. We had to change the philosophy that we normally like to get back in the game, and it worked for us. The bottom line is trying to find a way to win games. If we could design how to do it, he would carry the ball 20 times or more, but that game didn't go the way we hoped, and we almost found a way to win it, even though we didn't play well."
An effective running game built around Johnson would certainly help quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who could be under duress from a Ravens pass rush that sacked Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger four times and forced him into two interceptions and one lost fumble.
But the Ravens are intent on keeping Johnson under wraps. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said the key is keeping Johnson within the tackles.
"You've got to have an edge," Pagano said Thursday. "We always say on defense, 'No edge, no chance.' The longest plays in football happen down the sidelines. You can't let that happen. So we've got to have an edge."