|Titans RB Chris Johnson looks to follow up last week's 195-yard rushing performance with a strong effort Sunday vs. the Colts. (US Presswire)|
Since Chris Johnson emerged as one of the elite running backs in the league during his 2,006-yard season in 2009, opposing teams have countered by placing eight men in the box and daring the Tennessee Titans to beat them with their vertical passing attack.
With the hiring of head coach Mike Munchak and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer after the 2010 season, the Titans responded by adding elements of the run-and-shoot offense to dissuade defenses from keying on Johnson. In last Sunday's 35-34 win over Buffalo, Johnson received a reprieve against a Bills defense that primarily used a seven-man front. The All-Pro running back earned AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors Wednesday after rushing for a season-high 195 yards and two touchdowns.
“As a coach, you try to assess where they're going to attack you,” Palmer said. “When people don't want us to run, they put eight men in the box. I don't think there's a team in this league that can win consistently running the ball against an eight-man front.”
When the Titans face the Colts in Sunday's AFC South divisional matchup, Johnson will look to rush for 100 yards in consecutive weeks for just the third time since December 2010. By comparison, Johnson rushed for at least 100 yards in 12 straight games from Week 6 of the 2009 season until Week 2 of the 2010 campaign. Johnson will face a Colts defense that's ranked 26th against the run.
Throughout Johnson's career, he's excelled in the open field. When Johnson scored on an 83-yard touchdown in the first quarter against the Bills, he became the first player in NFL history to record four career touchdowns of 80 yards or more. Improved run blocking by FB Quinn Johnson and the line opened up a number of wide creases for the Tennessee back. Of Johnson's 195 yards, only 35 came after contact, according to profootballfocus.com.
Quinn Johnson inherited the fullback role after the departure of veteran FB Ahmard Hall in the offseason. On Johnson's 83-yard run, the fourth-year fullback delivered a key block on Buffalo LB Nick Barnett -- a play Johnson said was practiced extensively in the days leading up to the game.
“The hole opened up," Johnson said. "I saw the guy I was supposed to be blocking coming from my end. It was a knockdown block, but by that time CJ had gone around to the outside. My job was done. It had worked for me.”
As Chris Johnson's numbers have declined over the last two seasons, one knock on the fifth-year running back has been his penchant for looking for the home-run play. In Johnson's first four seasons, only three players in NFL history -- Barry Sanders, Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson -- had more career touchdown runs of 45 yards or longer.
There's a downside to the plethora of explosive gains. Through six weeks, the Titans amassed 24 negative runs, according to ESPN Stats & Info. While Buffalo forced five runs of negative yardage last week, Johnson had only one.
“I still can't go in there looking for the big runs," Johnson said. "I just have to stay with my keys and continue to hit the hole. It's going to continue to come just like it did on Sunday.”
Johnson's most impressive run of the game might not have come on a touchdown. On the Titans' game-winning drive, Johnson took a handoff from QB Matt Hasselbeck on an inside run and slashed through the Bills' line for a 27-yard gain. It set up a touchdown by WR Nate Washington with 1:03 left.
“They had seven in the box, we hand it off on an inside zone, and we have a run that put us in position to win that game,” Munchak said. “We stayed in the game, so you had more options to mix the run in. I think that's helped Chris quite a bit, and, because of that, we're not as predictable.”
Johnson will face an inexperienced Colts team that had 30 new players on its opening-day, 53-man roster. Though the Colts defense is modeled after the Ravens' suffocating 3-4 scheme, the unit has been hampered by injury. LBs Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis and Pat Angerer have missed nine games combined this season. Mathis and DE Fili Moala have been inactive in the Colts' last two.
As a result, Indianapolis ranks last in the league in defending runs up the middle (6.14 yard per rush), according to NFLGSIS.com. The lack of depth has also hurt the Colts' run defense late in games.
“It's a situation where teams are continuing to run the ball on them as the game wears on,” Johnson said.
Stevens cleared after experiencing concussion-like symptoms: TE Craig Stevens was cleared to return to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday's practice with concussion-like symptoms.
Munchak was unable to pinpoint when the injury occurred, but said it might have happened on a hit from a Buffalo linebacker early in the game. Stevens never left the game and the symptoms weren't apparent to the team until after the game ended.
The fifth-year tight end said he's been forthright with team trainers this week.
“You just have to be honest with them,” Stevens said. “You have to tell them the truth; you have to tell them how you feel.”
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on the Tennessee Titans, follow Matt Rybaltowski @CBSTitans.