Johnson-Slaton bond has been established

Some people are destined to be eternally linked. Bird and Magic. Sonny and Cher. Siegfried and Roy. Whether it’s by choice or chance, every so often the identities two individuals forge become inextricably intertwined.

Sweltering in the southern sun, the infancy of one such bond has commenced.

Photo Johnson, left, is always a threat to break away from the competition.
(Leo Halip/US Presswire)

On the heels of a Pro Bowl campaign as the Tennessee Titans’ dazzling dynamo, Chris Johnson is doing everything in his power this offseason to shed the notion that he is merely one-half of a running back tour de force.

The self-bestowed “Smash and Dash” moniker has been shed as quickly as it was established. Johnson has appealed all the way to the court of Twitter. In LenDale White(notes), Johnson indeed may believe he’s burdened with the complement that even his ankle-breaking shimmies are hard-pressed to shake. But make no mistake, the doughy White is hardly the yin to Johnson’s yang.

That would be Steve Slaton(notes).

Choose a metric, any. Age? Both are 23. Experience? Each enters his second NFL season. Stats? Try 251 carries for 1,228 yards with nine touchdowns for Johnson, with Slaton boasting rookie numbers of 268-1,282-9. Both ply their craft in the AFC South, where Johnson’s Titans squad clashes with Slaton’s Houston Texans twice each season. Most importantly, both are gearing up for sophomore campaigns when they know they’ll be the hunted, and they know they must prevail for their teams to thrive.

“I’m going to be more of a target this year,” Johnson acknowledges, “so it will be a little harder. But that’s why I got to work even harder than I did last year.”

Adds Slaton: “My role got more important as the season was ending. In the last five games, I felt a lot more comfortable and I think the coaches felt a lot more comfortable knowing that I was the No. 1 guy.”

Despite decorated collegiate careers at East Carolina and West Virginia, respectively, Johnson and Slaton didn’t rank among draft analysts’ “Most Likely to Achieve” candidates in the Class of 2008. Johnson, nabbed in Round 1’s waning stages, was dubbed a “workout warrior” courtesy of his blistering 4.24-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine, even though his near 2,000 scrimmage from yards as a senior stood testament to his gridiron ability.

Slaton, meanwhile, slipped to Round 3 as scouts doubted the durability of his wiry build and questioned how much of his production came courtesy of the Mountaineers’ spread offense that provided him with ready-made running lanes. Ironically enough, that system played a critical role in propelling his revelatory campaign.

“During training camp, we were just doing a lot of reps trying to get a better grasp of the zone scheme,” Slaton said, referring to Texans offensive line coach Alex Gibbs’ famed system that churned out 1,000-yard rushers by the truckload during Gibbs’ days in Denver. “But in college we ran a lot of zone, and I feel that one of my best attributes is trying to read the offensive linemen.”

Football synergy, if you will. The offensive linemen open the holes for the running backs, and the running backs take pressure off the quarterback. It’s Football 101 and Slaton’s at the head of the class.

Photo Slaton, with the ball, had five 100-yard games last season.
(Brett Davis/US Presswire)

“For [QB Matt Schaub(notes)] to be healthy, it’s going to be my job, the offensive line’s job and the receiver’s job to protect him.”

If Johnson shares in his fellow second-year sensation’s team-oriented perspective, you wouldn’t know it by his offseason bravado. First, he solicited end zone celebration ideas on Twitter. (He got some good ones, he told PFW, yet declined to spoil the surprise). Then, he distanced himself from backfield buddy White, announcing his desire to be hereto referred to as “Every Coach’s Dream.”

“When you look at all the top running backs throughout NFL [history], Eric Dickerson and those types of guys, people don’t refer to them as a group,” Johnson explains. “With me and LenDale, when it comes to the end of the day, we’re not going to be known as ‘Smash and Dash’ or any other nickname, but as LenDale White and Chris Johnson.”

No disrespect to White, who shared the USC backfield with Reggie Bush(notes) and whose ’08 contributions included 15 trips to paydirt, Johnson contends. After all, the celebration “Tweet” was delivered with White literally watching his buddy type in the memo – just the most pertinent example of their amicable relationship.

Whether they maintain that bond through the season remains to be seen, especially if Johnson’s rising profile and undeniable talent begin to dilute White’s contributions. Johnson spent OTAs and minicamp working extensively at receiver, as the Titans seek to exploit his blistering speed in the slot and out wide, in addition to his still-plentiful duties in the backfield.

Slaton also is primed for a heavier workload. He has put on about 10 pounds from his rookie playing weight of 205, which should enable him to better handle the weekly diet of 20-plus touches he’ll be fed. Just don’t expect him to also choreograph his celebrations upon crossing the goal line.

“I just give the ball to the ref,” Slaton said. “Act like I’ve been there before.”

Game on.

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Updated Monday, Jul 6, 2009