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Titans need to use Johnson more as decoy

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Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the biggest weakness of the 2009 season for every team and explain how the franchise can address the issue. The series continues with the Titans, who finished third in the AFC South (8-8).

Biggest problem in 2009: Johnson not a cure-all for offense

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Vince Young(notes) (R) hands off to Chris Johnson vs. the 49ers.
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

The Tennessee Titans were a team of two distinct seasons in 2009. There was the disastrous 0-6 start, when head coach Jeff Fisher found himself on the hot seat (a rare occurrence), and starting quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) got worse every game. In the sixth game, a franchise-worst 59-0 loss to the Patriots, Collins completed two of 12 passes for minus -7 yards. That was enough for Fisher (and owner Bud Adams), who replaced Collins with Vince Young over that bye week. Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger worked with Young, who hadn't started a game since early 2008, bringing him along with the kinds of option plays he knew from his days at Texas. Young has always been more efficient when he rolls out, and when he can fake out the defense with option looks and fake handoffs to running backs. The Titans went 8-2 down the stretch, missing the playoffs but ending the season as one of the NFL's better and more intriguing teams.

Still, the Titans' passing game won no awards. Young was tied for 12th in yards per attempt (7.3), but 22nd in completion percentage (58.7). Young's 10-7 touchdown/interception breakdown wasn't exactly Pro Bowl material, either. In truth, the offense was in running back Chris Johnson's hands a disproportionate amount of the time – not only did Johnson rush for a fifth-best all time 2,006 yards, he also led the team with 50 catches. That's a lot to ask of any one player, and it puts the Titans in a precarious position if anything happens to him. The key going forward is to develop offensive versatility, and Young's continued development as a quarterback is the key.

The 2010 solution: Use the threat of Johnson as much as the player himself

The problem with Johnson's fantastic '08 campaign is that 2,000-plus yard seasons are not repeatable under any circumstances, no matter how great the player. For the five players to post at least 2,000 rushing yards in a season before Johnson, the next-season drops in carries and yardage were precipitous – an average of 123.6 carries and 1,033.6 yards. Even if Johnson's decline doesn't come close to that kind of statistical downfall, the chances of him providing the level of threat he posed in 2009 are somewhere between slim and none. Thus, Young will need to develop his skills as a pocket passer and a consistent seller of the play-action fake. When you have a running back of Johnson's caliber, you can dominate with play action because the threat of Johnson is as frightening to a defense as Johnson himself. The good news for Titans fans is that Young has developed the more traditional aspects of his game as the team met him halfway with those option looks. One needs look no further than one play against the 49ers two weeks before the touchdown against the Texans.

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Play diagram

The 49ers played a lot of 5-2 base defense, frequently freezing on play action, and Young made them pay for it repeatedly. On the Titans' second drive in the first quarter Young followed a play-action out to Washington with a handoff to Johnson (28) for a five-yard gain. That set up Young's longest throw of the day, with 7:33 remaining in the first period. When Young faked to Johnson, who ran a quick outside clearing route as Justin Gage(notes) (12) and Nate Washington(notes) (85) ran crossing routes out of a tight twins formation (illustration), the front five lurched to Johnson's side and left Young with a clean pocket and time to make the throw. Linebacker Patrick Willis(notes) (52) spied the intermediate route, leaving safety Dashon Goldson(notes) (38) and cornerback Shawntae Spencer(notes) (36) – the 49ers' two best cover guys in 2009, by the way – to chase Gage in vain as he hauled in Young's bomb near the left sideline, 40 yards downfield. The play went for 49 total yards, landing the Titans at the San Francisco 8-yard line.

For years, the NFL has been waiting for the perfect hybrid quarterback – one player who could take the spread and option concepts he learned in college and combine them with the necessary keys to professional success – play action, pocket awareness, and an arsenal of repeatable, versatile throws. After a rocky start to his career, it's starting to look as if Vince Young might be that guy.