HOUSTON -- When you think of a run-stopping inside linebacker -- hopefully you don't very often, but for discussion's sake, say you do -- you think of Ted Johnson. Someone who is not a follower of pro football in general, or the New England Patriots in particular, but is at least aware of the fact that mostly large men play the game would know the moment they see Johnson what he does for a living. A football fan who for some reason never has seen Johnson wouldn't have to ask what position he plays. "LB" should be permanently affixed to the beginning of his name, like "Dr." Off the field he's a soft-spoken man, but everything else about him screams, "I'm a linebacker!" He is all of 6 feet 4 inches and 253 pounds. It looks as though the purpose for his being placed on this planet was to punish any person who would dare to attempt to advance a football.
Anyone can start out as a linebacker, but to continue being a linebacker, let alone an effective one, one must enjoy being a linebacker. And that means you have to derive pleasure out of violent collisions.
"You have to be a guy who initiates contact, who doesn't mind contact," Johnson said yesterday, six days before the Patriots and Panthers meet here, the city Johnson called home for 10 years, in Super Bowl XXXVIII. "One of my favorite sayings, a coach told me one time, he said the key to recruiting was, `If they don't bite when they're puppies, they won't when they're big dogs.' As a kid, I loved the physicalness of the game. I was always a linebacker. I was bigger than most offensive linemen. I was an aggressive kid. And I grew up in a system at Colorado where you were forced to be a physical player. That's all I know, and it's gotten me this far."
Johnson, 31, has nine seasons of NFL experience, all with the Patriots. This week, he is experiencing his third Super Bowl. New England lost the first one, to Green Bay in 1997, and won the second one over St. Louis two years ago. If the Patriots are to beat Carolina Sunday, they will need to slow down the Panthers' powerful running game. During the regular season, Carolina ranked seventh in the league in rushing, averaging 131 yards per game. That average is up to 159 yards in the postseason.
"If they're able to just run it down your throat and ball-control you, it's going to be a long day. We definitely have to meet force with force," Johnson said. "And they're very determined to keep after it. They don't care if it's third and long, they don't care if they're behind by two touchdowns, they're going to run the ball because that's what works for them. That's the nature of this team, and so we've got to be ready for that."
As Carolina's primary runner, Stephen Davis, 6-4 and 230 pounds, gained 1,444 rushing yards during the regular season. He is most effective running up the middle. Johnson plays inside linebacker. If injured starter Tedy Bruschi does not play Sunday, Johnson figures to play a lot of inside linebacker. That means frequent, sudden introductions to Davis, against whom Johnson never has played.
"He's probably just a little bit faster version of Jerome Bettis, I think," Johnson said. "He has the speed to break it on the perimeter, but he has the strength to run it up inside, too. You know what? He's got excellent vision. He knows where the hole is, and when he hits it, he hits it with a burst."
Johnson is known for stepping in a hole and bursting the proverbial bubble of a running back who thinks he's on his way to a sizable gain. In other words, Johnson is a run-stopper. But he isn't only a run-stopper.
"Personally, I don't particularly like that label all that much," he said. "Because you get typecast, or whatever you want to call it. I'd like to think that I can do more than just stop the run."
Doing so involves more than meets the eye. Developing a skill for frequently meeting backs in the hole takes work. Not just workouts, but film study, as well.
"A lot of running backs like to ad lib," Johnson said. "Some guys hit the holes where the play's designed to hit. You have to realize what kind of player you've got, do you have a guy who will take chances and do his own thing, or will he follow his lead blockers? I look at the whole thing. I look at the offensive line. By the way, this offensive line has 34 years of experience between the five of them. That's a lot of football. They've got a nastiness about them. I think they're the tone setters for the whole team. Not to take anything away from their defensive line, but I think their offensive line has an attitude about them, and that attitude kind of permeates throughout the whole team. Watching those guys, it can be a long day for us if we're not ready for it."
Bruschi's status for the game appears uncertain. His absence would shorten the inside linebacker rotation of Bruschi, Johnson, and Roman Phifer. "I'm preparing like I'm going to play the whole game, but that's how I prepare every week," Johnson said. "You don't want to get to the game and realize that you're going to be called on more than you thought and go, `Why didn't I prepare better,' or, `Why didn't I watch more film?' I think it serves me well to make sure I prepare as though I'm going to play the entire game."
Johnson broke a foot in the regular-season opener at Buffalo and missed the next eight games. He returned after the bye week, against Dallas and the coach who drafted him, Bill Parcells. Johnson's playing time has been limited since. He finished the year with a career-low 26 tackles.
"I don't think you ever make up for missing nine weeks," he said. "I think I'm about as good as I can be at this point. Your reps are limited. Getting the opportunity to play at full speed and getting a serious amount of reps is always key, but if it ain't broke, why fix it? Tedy Bruschi and Roman Phifer, they've done a hell of a job. I give credit to my coach for allowing me to get in there and play a little bit. I didn't know if I was going to be put on [injured reserve] or what. I'm thankful that they believed in me enough to not put me on IR."
And whether Bruschi plays or not, Johnson likely will be a key player come Sunday.
"Nine years, three Super Bowls, my dad and I were talking about how lucky I am to experience this," he said. "I'm not going to take it for granted.
"You win the game, it makes your trip. To get to this point and not come away with a win is heartbreaking, to say the least. To maximize our experience, we've got to win this game, for it to pay off, all the work that was put into this year."