Chris Johnson's ridiculous season kicked into high gear on Sept. 20. The Titans couldn't beat the Texans that day, but he embarrassed Houston, running for 197 yards and setting concerns about the Texans' run defense at DEFCON 1.
In the nine weeks since, Houston has transformed into a much more effective defense, and Johnson's moved past 1,000 yards.
So while Vince Young's return to his hometown as the starting quarterback of the much-improved Titans is a big story, the key to the "Monday Night Football" rematch at Reliant Stadium is Johnson. If he can come close to his Week 2 performance, Tennessee is now equipped to ride it to victory. If the Texans can better control him, their chances of improving to 6-4 in front of a raucous crowd will jump significantly.
The Texans' defense in general, and run defense in particular, has improved for several reasons.
The team's done better with the message of first-year coordinator Frank Bush and is more fundamentally sound. Bernard Pollard was signed and took over as the starting strong safety. His reliable positioning and sure tackling have helped raise the standard in both departments.
And the rushing offenses of the Texans' last six opponents now average 22nd in the NFL while the first three opponents -- the Jets, Titans and Jaguars -- are first, second and sixth, respectively.
They gave up an average of 205 rushing yards in the first three and have cut the number to 60.5 since.
“Stopping the run has really been the big thing,” rookie linebacker Brian Cushing said. “Guys really started coming together. I know my game, mentally, has stepped up and a couple other guys have really stepped up too. This defense is just really jelling and we enjoy playing with each other.”
“Hell guys, it had to get better,” Gary Kubiak said of the run defense. “It was as bad as it could possibly be after three weeks this year. It had no way to go but up.”
Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said watching film of the Texans to prepare for the game showed a different team.
“They're playing with much more confidence,” he said. “The first time we played them, there were some breakdowns in assignments and gaps and now you don't see that any more. They're in the right gaps, they're flying to the ball. I don't think they'll play us the same way, and it's not so much the success we've had, I think it's more some of the breakdowns they had. You don't see confusion anymore.”
Johnson said he thinks he might see some five-man lines from the Texans and he doesn't expect to be able to slip outside as a receiver and be left uncovered as he was on a 69-yard catch and run for one of his three touchdowns in the first matchup.
And because he expects the Texans to adjust and be better coming out of their bye, he said the Titans need to adjust and be better.
“They have more time to prepare against me, some of the things you like to do, some of the plays you like to run,” he said. “So basically as an offense, we've got to go in there and mix it up and do some new things. Because they are going to expect us to do some of the same things since we had so much success.”
He was upset to come up three yards short of 200 rushing and said he hopes to get there this time.
“I think I'm unstoppable,” he said. “I've got great confidence. I expect to do well every time I am on the field.”
In three games since Young took over at quarterback, Johnson's rushed for 495 yards. A run threat at quarterback as compared to a pocket passer in Kerry Collins has opened up even more for Johnson.
They've even been running some option plays.
“With Vince doing some of the things we're doing now, they have to look out for him too,” fullback Ahmard Hall said. “It's not just about stopping CJ anymore.”
This is the Texans' one shot in prime time this year, and Cushing said they know much of their national reputation will be founded on how they perform. The Titans lost in overtime in Pittsburgh in the NFL's opening night game and were crushed 31-9 by Indianapolis in Sunday Night Football as part of their 0-6 start.
Creative on the field, Johnson hasn't had a chance to play a set of bongo drums in a touchdown celebration like he did in Kansas City last season. Maybe he's imagining Monday night will provide a chance to show off not just his speed, but his smile.
“This kid's amazing,” Kubiak said. “What type of year he's having and the pace he's on, you don't see that very often in this league. He's tremendous and it's, of course, the biggest challenge we've had all year long… He's a great player. In this league you play great people and understand that they're going to make plays. But hopefully you can find a way to contain them over a period of three and a half hours.”