Figuring out Chris Johnson's 'struggles'

With teams often putting eight, nine or even 10 defenders in the box, Chris Johnson is finding it more difficult to find daylight this season. Tom Berg/Icon SMI

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- He’s the NFL’s sixth-leading rusher with averages that project to a 1,416-yard season and 16 rushing touchdowns. That would be the sixth-best season in 51 years of franchise history.

But it wouldn’t be good enough for Chris Johnson, or the Tennessee Titans.

A year after he ran for 2,006 yards and set an all-purpose yards record with 2,509 yards, expectations are gigantic. He pumped them even more with his prediction of a 2,500-yard season.

So far, however, his 3.8-yard average, league-high 94 carries and the Titans' 2-2 record are setting off alarms.

And no, he and the Titans' running game just don’t look quite the same.

“We’re an average run game right now,” running backs coach Craig Johnson said.

“We’re not as good as we want to be running the ball right now,” Chris Johnson said.

Here’s insight I gathered talking to key people and some of my own thinking on a bunch of issues concerning what’s “wrong” and what the Titans might be looking to do to maximize CJ’s chances as they prepare for a trip to Dallas.

Throw it more and better: The passing offense is limited and it isn’t scaring anyone into backing off the line of scrimmage and creating space for Johnson.

The Titans keep saying they are seeing defenses stack eight, nine, even 10 in the box -- I guess we’re talking goal line or major short-yardage situations there. The natural way to combat that is to complete passes behind all those defenders.

Craig Johnson said those defenses have been exceptionally disciplined in their run support.

“They are going to do everything they can to stop him,” receiver Nate Washington said. “So we have to do everything we can to open things up for him.”

The trouble is, teams aren’t real scared of getting beat over the top.

“As usual, the passing game is the problem here,” said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.

Backing people off might not spring CJ for big yards anyway, Titans left tackle Michael Roos said.

“If you’ve got eight, nine guys in the box and you give him just enough of a crease, there’s nobody left to tackle him,” Roos said. “… If we’re physical enough, push people by enough, he can just run right past that ninth guy in the box and there is no safety left to make that tackle.

“You can beat it that way or, yeah, you can pass the ball and get them backed up. But I am pretty sure most teams, no matter how good we pass it for a week, two weeks, whatever, are going to keep saying, ‘Let’s try to make them beat us with the pass and load up to stop CJ.’”

Johnson joked Wednesday that he wished the Titans had gotten Randy Moss because he knows Moss would take defenders deep. That’s an unintentional commentary on the Titans’ threats.

Try three-wide: I’d like to see the Titans go with more three- and even four-wide sets to spread things, then run against personnel that’s made for defending the pass. The Steelers didn’t always go into nickel against three-wide, but that doesn’t mean Dallas and upcoming opponents won’t be more conventional. And it can be more about the spacing than the personnel.

Justin Gage is dealing with a hamstring injury. The Titans should let him rest and get Lavelle Hawkins, who’s not yet been active, on the field as the slot receiver. He’s different from the other receivers and if he can live up to the offseason hype the team generated about him, perhaps he can help alter things.

Keith Hawkins of ESPN Stats & Information ran some Chris Johnson numbers for me. Johnson’s been the ball carrier or target on only 14 three-wide plays this season.

On eight carries, he has averaged 11.1 yards and on 13 touches he has averaged 6.8 yards.

In all other packages, he has averaged 3.1 yards a carry and 3.3 yards a touch.

It’s certainly a small sample size on the three-wide numbers. So let’s see a bigger one.

Expectations: Even before he talked of wanting 2,500 rushing yards this season, most outlooks were unrealistic. The guys before him who topped 2,000 yards didn’t play in the fantasy era, in which a 1,400-yard, 14-touchdown follow-up season could ridiculously rank as a monstrous disappointment to a large share of the fan base.

Johnson’s home run rate has been spectacular, and you’d expect some regression to the mean.

In his first 32 games, Johnson had eight touchdown runs of 50 yards or more. That’s already third-most in NFL history. The only backs ahead of him are Barry Sanders (15 in 153 games) and Jim Brown (12 in 118).

Has that created ridiculous expectations?

“It’s not realistic,” right guard Jake Scott said. “What he’s done is ridiculous. You can’t look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s been three weeks since he had an 80-yard run, he’s a failure.’ That’s not reasonable to say that. You can’t get caught up in that.”

Measure his carries: There has been some ridiculous talk of getting Javon Ringer on the field more because he’s looked good in spot relief work.

I’m fine with carries for the backup as spot relief work. None of them should be as an alternative to Johnson at anytime that could be considered a crucial moment of the game.

I’m not a big critic of the heavy workload, but I understand that stance and the numbers that support it.

In his first season and a half in the NFL, he averaged 17.2 carries and 5.54 yards.

In the four games after that (games eight-12 last season), he averaged 25 carries a game and 5.50 yards a carry.

In the four games after that (games 13-16 last season), he averaged 28.5 carries a game and 4.36 yards a carry.

And in games one through four this season, he averaged 23.5 carries a game and 3.77 yards a carry.

He’s probably better with a lighter load. But that doesn’t scream "run someone else" to me as much as it begs for a more balanced offense.

That doesn’t mean we’ll get it. I believe the Titans have trust issues with Vince Young as a passer and while the Titans would like to be balanced, Jeff Fisher’s teams almost always have run-first offenses.

“If they continue to gang up on CJ, we have other avenues we can attack,” Craig Johnson said. “But we also are never going to let any team dictate to us how much we are going to run the ball. Because we are always going to be a good running football team.”

In the summer while in Jacksonville, I asked Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio about the concept of reducing carries for a premier back like Johnson.

“I think they should limit his touches,” Del Rio said laughing. “Especially against the Jaguars.”

Run VY: The idea of having a second threat in the backfield to concern the defense is a good one. A handful of option plays are fine. I also wish Young would run more. He’s coached to take off when he doesn’t see an open target, but seems reluctant to do so. He averages just over three rushing attempts a game.

More runs by him could help Johnson’s cause.

“It’s another way of making the defense honor something else,” Roos said. “Whether it’s passing, him running or him running and then throwing on the move, it forces them to honor him, spread out and make sure they cover him. At least there is something else to think about every play and they can’t key on CJ too much.”

Block better: Roos said it’s tough to compare how the line is blocking now and how it was blocking last season when Johnson was running wild.

“Overall, I don’t think we’re any better, I don’t think we’re any worse,” he said. “Little things kind of happen here and there during the course of a game and this year they might be happening at more crucial times or farther away from the goal line so we’re not able to convert third downs and stay out in the field.”

I don’t believe much of the problem is related to the changes -- Kevin Mawae gone, Eugene Amano shifted to center, Leroy Harris installed as left guard. All involved say that although Mawae was an excellent communicator and crafty player, Amano is making the same calls.

Said Williamson: “Amano has been rather terrible and the offensive line overall is a smidge overrated.”

Be decisive: There are a lot of questions about Johnson’s decisiveness.

“I don't think Johnson is running with the same conviction,” Williamson said. “He’s dancing a little more than usual. He’s not ‘hitting it up in there’ as much. Still, if he gets free in just one of these ‘down’ games ... then no one is talking about him slumping. So, the nature of his game is a little hit and miss.”

To all that, Chris Johnson said: “I’m running the same.”

He also said he knows it’s dangerous to start swinging for the fences instead of letting things open up, a line of thinking he has clearly discussed in the meeting room with his position coach.

“What you don’t want to do in situations like this is panic and start looking for the big runs all the time, that’s what gets you in a lot of trouble,” Craig Johnson said. “That’s something as a coach I’ve got to make sure about, make sure he doesn’t get frustrated and start looking for the big run.

“His big runs have not come because he’s looking for them; they just happen. He hits the hole with a sense of urgency, he’s been able to keep his balance, we’ve done well on the front side and just as importantly the backside pursuit is cut down. The hope for any runner there is to get a one-on-one situation and the rest is history.”

3-4s: Dallas plays a 3-4, meaning three of the Titans' first five opponents use base 3-4 fronts. Different defenses require different means of attack, and the Titans haven’t done so well with that, particularly against Pittsburgh and Denver. Johnson totaled 87 rushing yards against the Steelers and Broncos.

After the Cowboys, there are four 3-4 teams left on the schedule: San Diego, Miami, Washington and Kansas City.

Figuring how to move and run the ball better against those teams is a must.

Continue to develop a key relationship: Craig Johnson has been around and knows the Titans’ offensive scheme very well. But he was shifted to the running back job a week before camp started after Jeff Fisher’s hand-picked guy, Kennedy Pola, bolted for USC before ever working a game with Tennessee.

Johnson’s previous position coach, Earnest Byner, played running back in the league and had experience coaching the spot in the league. Craig Johnson is a different sort of resource.

Chris Johnson has said it’s not a big difference to him, but that he gets a full picture of the offense more often in the classroom, rather than just the running back's perspective.

“That could be part of it, I don’t know,” Craig Johnson said of the different sort of relationship. “We’re still trying to find that out.

“But I have been around for a little bit, so I do understand the X's and O's and concepts of the game. The bottom line is as a backfield, it starts with us. Make sure we stay on our blocks, get our assignments … Then everything gets it going.”