Blame Titans blocking for Chris Johnson's struggles
Chris Johnson ran for four yards on 11 carries on Sunday. It was an abysmal performance, but when looking at what the Titans running back was (un)able to do against the Patriots, it becomes clear that his production is more about the Tennessee line's inability to block than Johnson's rushing skills.
When beleaguered Titans running back Chris Johnson ran for four yards on 11 carries against the Patriots in the season opener on Sunday, he drew the derision of more than a few folks. It's understandable, but it's not his fault. At least not entirely anyway: CJNoK's struggles need to be pinned primarily on the Titans run blocking and, to a lesser extent, the Titans playcalling.
Believe me, I wanted to flip on the tape and come to the realization that Johnson was loafing. But that's just not really the case. The guys in front of him either a) can't block, b) can't hold their blocks, or c) both of the above.
Let's break down his 11 carries and see who's to blame.
Johnson's first carry of the game came with 14:50 on the clock on second-and-10 in the first quarter. He went for one yard and at first glance it's stunning that he didn't pick up more yardage.
He's tackled by at least three Pats for a one-yard gain. On Johnson's next carry -- on 1st-and-10 from the Tennessee 40, the Titans crash fullback Quinn Johnson into the hole from the weak side, he gets hammered, but makes his block, creates a giant lane for Johnson ... but Fernando Velasco can't hold his block on Jerod Mayo.
When you watch this play develop, you're stunned Johnson doesn't get more than five yards: if Velasco holds his block for another second, Johnson's in a one-on-one situation in the open field. He wins those most of the time.
Johnson's third carry, a second-and-six from the Patriots 42-yard line in the first quarter, picked up four yards. The Patriots were sitting on the run, stayed home and did a good job limiting Johnson to four yards.
The very next play, on third-and-three, the Titans ran Johnson on a down featuring less than five yards for the first time in the game. This would be one of two times they did that in the game.
Not that it mattered, because Cook (white circle on the right) barely even manages to attempt a block on Mayo, who blows past him and keeps Johnson from picking up what would've been a first down and perhaps much more.
Tennessee used a long play on fourth down to get near the goal line and then ran Johnson on second-and-eight from the New England 12 with just under 10 minutes left in the first quarter.
I don't know what the specific playcall was, but if CJ follows Quinn outside, he might get a cut that equates to a touchdown, or something close. Instead, he cuts back into the teeth of the Pats defense. This was certainly a curious decision.
Two yards later, it's third down and longish, the Titans don't get it, and they're forced to kick a field goal. They would hold the Patriots to a punt, get the ball back and immediately run Johnson on the next two plays.
On the first one, Johnson loses three yards, thanks mainly to the Pats loading up the box and no one touching Chandler Jones (heelllllo again, sir) before he could touch Johnson.
The next play gains more yards, but it's more inexplicable. Johnson's running off left tackle, only he has two problems. Jones has spun outside on Michael Roos and is getting an arm on him. A bigger issue? Mayo's just sitting there, unblocked:
Darius Reynaud -- one of four guys split out for Tennessee -- was the closest man to Mayo. He looks like he's attempting to run the "route" involved in a bubble screen during the play.
Whatever the Titans called on Johnson's next rush (2nd-and-10 with 12 minutes left in the second quarter) was even worse. I actually wrote "WTF?" in my notes here, mainly because of the cluster involved when they handed the ball off.
The number of Patriots crashing the ball should indicate that New England wasn't falling for any subversion, especially poorly-run subversion, at this point.
Johnson's last run before the half came with about 11 minutes left on the clock in the second quarter and was a draw. This wasn't a bad play, but it was snuffed out by the Patriots, who stayed home and covered their assignments perfectly to stop Johnson for two yards.
And here's where it's probably worth mentioning: the Patriots defense looks a lot better. Jones is a freaking beast. Dont'a Hightower is very good as well. If they stay healthy, this team is scary.
Johnson's next-to-last carry would come with 59 seconds left in the third quarter. Yes, that is a long time between carries and please bear in mind that the score was 28-10 and the Titans lined up in a three-receiver, shotgun set that featured Jared Cook in the slot. If ever there was a time not to expect Tennessee to run the ball, this was that time. The Titans ran it anyway, using a draw, and Johnson was snuffed out after gainingtwo yards.
The play was set up well, but, once again, it was blocking that hurt the Titans: Leroy Harris couldn't hold his block and Cook (far right, no markings) just kind of saunters up the field like a child wandering into the middle of a movie.
And that brings us to the final carry of Johnson's day. With 10:30 or so left, the Titans snapped the ball from the Patriots one-yard line, down 28-10. It was the perfect time to get Johnson a touchdown, appease his fantasy owners a little, and get him above that magic 10-yard-for-the-day marker.
Pretty simple play here. Quinn has to get outside, throw block and CJNoK is in the end zone with a touchdown, the Titans are keeping things respectable and everyone's at least less unhappy than they were before.
Unfortunately, Velasco gets absolutely railroaded by Vince Wilfork, who gets a hand on Johnson before he can even see the corner. Blocking guys in the back seven to get into the end zone isn't even an issue here, with Wilfork snuffing the play out for a loss of five.
Yeesh. What a perfectly ugly capper to a horrendous day for Johnson. Look, 11 carries for four yards isn't an acceptable day for a backup running back, much less one of the top backs in the league ... especially when he had a miserable 2011 and is remembered for holding out before that flop of a year.
It's entirely possible as well that the Patriots are on the verge of becoming the best team in the NFL against the run. OK, that's probably not the actual case, but they're vastly improved. It won't be this rough for CJNoK every week.
That being said, the blocking by the Titans on Sunday was just abhorrent. It hasn't been great for a while, and it might not get better: the Chargers, Lions, Texans, Vikings and Steelers are the next five opponents on Tennessee's schedule.
Johnson didn't always make the right decisions on the field and looked hesitant at times. But the real decision-making issues for Tennessee involve calling plays that keep Johnson from running into a swarm of defenders and, more obviously, the choice of who they're putting on the field to block for Johnson in the first place.
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