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Johnson aims at second 2K season; better Titans line may help

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009 but only 1,047 in 2011. (Getty Images)  
Johnson rushed for 2,006 yards in 2009 but only 1,047 in 2011. (Getty Images)  

No one has ever rushed for 2,000 yards in a season two times in NFL history. But at only 26 years old, set to turn 27 only a couple weeks into the season, Chris Johnson is aiming to become the first.

"That's definitely the goal," Johnson said.

Johnson's age alone shouldn't be viewed as a deterrent. Barry Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards in 1997 at age 29.

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"I think it can be done," the Tennessee Titans' star tailback reiterated to The Tennessean newspaper recently.

And, history aside, it probably can be. But only if the Titans' offensive line, previously a model of stability and performance, plays better in 2012 than it did last season. And, too, if it comes together after an offseason of change.

Much of the culpability for Johnson's dropoff the past two seasons, after becoming only the sixth player in league history to run for 2,000 yards in 2009, has focused on the four-year veteran back. And, arguably, deservedly so, especially after a lengthy holdout in 2011 that followed the lockout.

Johnson dropped from 2,006 yards in '09, to 1,364 yards in 2010, and to a career worst 1,047 yards last season. His average per carry, only 4.0 yards, was also the lowest of his career. And only two seasons after posting seven runs of 40 yards or more in '09, he registered only one.

But the lockout seemed to affect the continuity and cohesion of the Tennessee line almost as much as it did Johnson. The unit, widely regarded as one of the league's best, has not been nearly as good the past two campaigns. And the falloff has had some kind of impact, it seems, on Johnson's productivity.

That the line hasn't been quite as good, and contributed in part to Johnson's slip, is reflected by the actions of the Tennessee football operation in the offseason. The tackle tandem of Michael Roos (left) and David Stewart (right) has stayed intact. But the interior of the unit has been overhauled after a spotty 2011 performance.

Tennessee signed 11-year veteran and seven-time Pro Bowl blocker Steve Hutchinson, and installed him at left guard, and even at age 34, he is being counted on to help supply an aggressive attitude that seemed to be missing at times in 2011. Left guard Leroy Harris likely will move to the right side to replace the departed Jake Scott. And, as if to signal some questions about longtime center Eugene Amato, the Titans visited with five free-agent snappers in the spring. They signed none, but Amano, who has vowed to retain his starting job, clearly was put on notice. As Nashville-area media outlets have noted, the interior of the line remains a work in progress in offseason practices.

The unit, which pro scouts around the league contend did not block nearly as well at "the second level" the past two seasons as in 2009, will clearly be different in its second season under line coach Bruce Matthews, who was in his first season with the franchise last year.

There is probably some credence to the "second level" assessments of NFL scouts in rating the play of the Tennessee line the past couple of seasons. In 2009, Johnson had 22 rushes of 10 or more yards, seven of 40 yards or more. The past two years, he has totaled only 24 of the former, five of the later. The synergy required of a solid running game has been as lacking as Johnson's electrifying sprints.

But with the presence of Matthews and second-year head coach Mike Munchak, two Hall of Fame guards, one would think the blocking unit would be improved.

"And it will be," said Harris, entering his third season as a starter.

Which could place the onus on Johnson in 2012. And the former first-round draft choice (2008) seems eager to accept the mantle.

"[I've] never felt better," Johnson said last month. "Whatever happened last year, well, it happened, and it's behind me."

Johnson suggested to The Tennessean that he is "still the best back in the league."

Having added 10-12 pounds, and fully committed to the offseason program for the first time in his career, Johnson appears motivated to regain his previous form. And the retooled offensive line has worked hard to smooth out the kind of rough spots always inherent to change. In addition, offensive coordinator Chris Palmer, who came aboard in 2011, will have a second season, minus a lockout, to put his scheme into place. And, as noted, Matthews will also be in his second go-round with the club.

Johnson has debunked the notion that he was perhaps overused during his first two seasons in the league. But in 2008-2009, he averaged 5.3 yards per year, including 5.6 yards per attempt in his 2,000-yard campaign. The past two years, his average has fallen off to 4.2 yards, despite carrying less. But Johnson, whose rushing scores have also dropped off, to 15 the past two years after 23 his first two, has not railed about his workload, and seems to want the ball just as much as ever.

It's not unusual for a back's production to slump after a 2,000-yard season. Not counting Terrell Davis, who rushed for 2,008 yards in 1998 but then was injured for much of '99 (when he ran for only 211 yards), 2,000-yard backs have posted between 32 percent and 51 percent fewer yards the following season. So Johnson's slide of roughly one-third between 2009 and 2010 is not that unusual. Of the back who stayed healthy, though -- Davis never again ran for over 701 yards because of injuries -- no one has rung up two consecutive "down" years. In addition to the second-time, 2,000-yard goal, Johnson, whose total of 5,645 yards is the best mark ever for a runner in his first four NFL seasons, wants to put an end to that kind of slippage as well.

"There are people out there who aren't going to give me the respect that I deserve," Johnson said in The Tennessean. With the aid of an improved offensive line, Johnson is aiming to regain that respect.

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