OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens have been fortunate not to face Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson over the last two seasons in which he’s rushed for a combined 3,234 yards — 2,006 of those coming in 2009.
The last time the two teams faced was the 2008 playoffs when Johnson ran all over the Ravens in a 72-yard first-half performance in an eventual 13-10 defensive struggle that sent Baltimore to the AFC championship game. If not for an ankle injury that sidelined the rookie running back late in the first half, the Titans may have been the ones taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week.
Rex Ryan’s defense had no answers for the lightning-fast tailback, who also compiled 28 yards receiving out of the backfield, prior to being sidelined.
“I’m happy he left the game, because he was on the verge of breaking over 200 yards on us, I think,” defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “He did really well in that first half, and I think it was a good thing he went down.”
The memory of that disappointing loss for the Titans — the No. 1 seed following the 2008 season — has resurfaced this week with Johnson still believing the Baltimore defense used questionable tactics prior to his exit in the second quarter. The ankle injury forced Johnson to miss the Pro Bowl in what was his rookie season.
“They were trying to hurt me a little bit,” Johnson said to The Tennessean on Wednesday. “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.”
Johnson took issue with a play in which his body was twisted backward — with his legs secured — as the whistle blew (see below). However, the injury occurred a few plays later near the sideline, according to safety Ed Reed.
It isn’t the first time the rugged Baltimore defense has been accused of dirty tactics, but the Ravens maintain their innocence while defending their physical style of football against their opponent.
“Nothing is ever intentional to try and take any guy out,” Reed said during a conference call with the Nashville media on Wednesday. “My game has never been like that, and I know these guys don’t play like that either.”
While Johnson said he holds no grudge against the Baltimore defenders, he will be motivated to recapture his past success against the Ravens, especially after he was held to a paltry 24 rushing yards on nine attempts in the Titans’ season-opening loss in Jacksonville.
Preventing Johnson from getting to the edge will be a challenge for the defense, one that is very much a priority with Tennesee starting quarterback Matt Hasselbeck still getting fully acclimated in offensive coordinator Chris Palmer’s offense. The big-play capabilities of Johnson and wide receiver Kenny Britt figure to be the Titans’ best chance of pulling off an upset in an otherwise lopsided-feeling matchup.
“We have to contain him,” said safety Bernard Pollard, who played against Johnson twice a year as a member of the Houston Texans in 2009 and 2010. “He’s an explosive weapon on the field. You can use him in the passing game or the running game, outside, in the middle, it does not matter. I think he’s explosive whenever the ball’s in his hands. We have to contain him as a defense.”
While an interesting subplot in an otherwise mundane matchup — especially with long-tenured coach Jeff Fisher no longer in charge of the Titans — what happened over two years ago won’t figure to noticeably impact Sunday’s outcome. The Baltimore defense will continue playing its brash, intimidating style of defense as it has for over a decade.
If teams find it dirty or unsportsmanlike, that’s their problem to deal with at the end of the day.
“It’s how we roll,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said. “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 everybody. There’s going to be some casualties. That’s just the way we play.”
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