Tennessee running back Chris Johnson appears to be back to his old self, carrying the ball with the unique stop-and-start quickness that made him a 2,000-yard man in the 2009 season. But is he good enough to also carry a young quarterback? That became the question Monday after the Titans named second-year quarterback Jake Locker the starter for the regular season.
It was obvious that Locker, the team's first-round pick in 2011, had the inside track for the job against veteran Matt Hasselbeck. He didn't exactly do much to earn the starting job. On Friday night in Tampa against the Buccaneers, Locker completed just four of 11 passes, was intercepted once and finished with a quarterback rating of 7.0 in nearly an entire half of work (single digits is nearly impossible in the QB rating system).
In his first start of any kind in the NFL, Locker's accuracy and decision-making were erratic. His interception was a textbook mistake as he moved right and threw across his body to the left into the middle of the field. He had a solid 21-yard scramble, which is nice but hardly bread-and-butter stuff.
Locker's ascendency to the starting job was pre-ordained – and there's nothing wrong with that. Teams don't spend first-round picks on quarterbacks just to have them sit on the bench. If the Titans are going to have long-term success, they need to find out if Locker can play sooner rather than later. But if they're going to ease Locker's burden along the way, Johnson must be something closer to his 2009 form and flirt with becoming the first running back to twice hit 2,000 yards in a season.
His performance against Tampa Bay bolstered hope. While his final totals of 10 carries for 46 yards were hardly extraordinary, his two touchdown runs were vintage Johnson. Or as Hasselbeck said with a wide-eyed smile: "That was pretty special, wasn't it?"
Johnson's patented jump cut, where he virtually stops on a dime and then gets back to full speed in a step, was there. His breakaway burst to the outside after getting past the line of scrimmage was straight out of his breakout season. More important, the way he set up those runs was just like before.
"I took a look at all his runs from 2009 and 2011 and the one thing he wasn't doing last year was running it hard on the inside to set up the outside runs," Titans radio analyst and former running back Eddie George said. "On the way over for the game, that's exactly what I told him on the bus. You have to be willing to take those hard [3-yard gains] and [4-yard gains] to set up that other stuff."
Johnson's holdout from last year also had long-lasting effects. He is a rare running back who needs lots of work to get his timing right. At a position that is sometimes reserved for battering rams and tow trucks, Johnson is a Lamborghini. When the timing goes bad, it's a mess.
"It did hurt coming straight in and missing training camp last year like that," said Johnson, whose holdout produced a record contract for a running back (it was later surpassed by Adrian Peterson). "This is a thing where you get better rep after rep, so you need to do the work. I can see how it helped me this year.
"I'm feeling good and trying to get on the same page with my offensive line so they know how I like to run the ball and how they're blocking. Basically, we're working and I don't want to say that we're back to where we were when I rushed for 2,000, but just trying to get better."
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Johnson is a rare speed back with the courage to run in the trenches. He forces teams to respect the inside run as defenses can't cheat the linebackers too far outside the offensive tackles. If you miss Johnson on an inside run, it's roughly the same thing as giving up a deep pass.
The Titans are married to Johnson and need him to provide the kind of big plays normally associated with the passing game. If Johnson can give that type of explosiveness, Locker's issues will be easier to hide.
"I've heard that many times, but I know it's not the case," Locker said when asked about his reputation for being wild. As Locker said that, he turned quickly and walked to the team bus, as if the denial-and-dart routine would make the answer more believable.
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Truth is, Locker is raw. On one incomplete pass in the second quarter, he stared down wide receiver Kendall Wright so long that two Tampa Bay defenders had a shot to intercept the ball before it bounced off one of their hands. It didn't look so bad when, a few plays later, Johnson danced into the end zone for his second score. In the end, Locker "led" a touchdown drive, even if his role was more like Secretariat's jockey.
For the time being, that may be enough.
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