It's almost hard to believe that in 2009, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson became the sixth running back in NFL history to gain more than 2,000 yards in a season. Back in 2009, Johnson was the league's ultimate game-changer -- a speedy, hard-to-stop dynamo who electrified on nearly every play.
But as is often the case with running backs, that didn't last too long. After amassing 2,006 rushing yards on 358 carries and another 260 yards on 43 catches, Johnson's totals on the ground started to erode in a big hurry. In 2010, he ran for 1,364 yards on 316 carries, and he fell to 1,047 yards on 262 carries in 2011. His yards per carry average plummeted from 5.6 to 4.3 to 4.0.
Through two games of the 2012 season, Johnson's totals are far more worrisome -- he has just 21 rushing yards on 19 carries, good for a 1.1 yards-per-carry average, and the on-field view confirms what the stats say. Right now, for whatever reason, Chris Johnson is not performing at an NFL level. Asked why that was this week, Johnson seemed to imply that the fault lay with his offensive line.
"I wouldn't sit here and say I'm to blame," Johnson said. "I wouldn't think so, but I'm not the guy to sit here and be the guy that points fingers and things like that. It's just a situation where I'm going to be only as good as my line's going to be. So we've got to work together and get better together."
Unfortunately for Johnson's case, even a cursory look at the tape shows that he's not running with any sense of urgency. He's exhibiting very little burst, and his aversion to contact is kind of disturbing.
On the Titans' first offensive play against the Chargers, Johnson was tripped up by linebacker Donald Butler and safety Eric Weddle after a two-yard gain. The Titans' offensive line cleared a hole over the middle with a combo block, but Johnson was unable to stretch that blocking into a big play as the best backs are able to do.
Next time he got the ball, Johnson went down after a one-yard gain when linebacker Shaun Phillips tripped him up with an ankle tackle.
The Titans set their blocking to San Diego's overload left-side front, but Johnson couldn't make it go. He then ran straight into the pile for no gain, and didn't get another carry until halfway through the second quarter.
When he did get another chance, with 6:28 left in the first half, Johnson had what would seem to be an ideal situation. The Chargers had a front aligned perfectly for the delay play the Titans were planning -- there was a huge gap set up, and there was a lane clearly established.
As Johnson took the ball, his blockers set the edges where they needed to, and he hit the hole (hell, it was a two-lane road at this point).
Johnson had several options as the defense converged upon him -- he could blast through safety Aari Bigby, who had come down from a two-deep shell to play the run fit role, or he could zip to his left through the hole established by guards Fernando Velasco and Leroy Harris, and tight end Jared Cook.
Sadly, Johnson did neither of those things.
As Bigby closed on a run fill, Johnson tried to cut left and gain what should have been at least a few extra yards. But once again, a graze tackle took him down.
It's as simple as this: The eye in the sky doesn't lie, and that eye tells us that the Tennessee Titans are providing Chris Johnson with at least acceptable blocking -- certainly enough to do more than what he's doing. The great running backs are great because they make more of plays than they are given. It's easy to blame a like when a back struggles, but it's not always correct. In my opinion, the major issue with Chris Johnson -- and it is an issue that will plague the Titans until it is somehow corrected -- is that Johnson himself can't or won't shake and break contact for extra gains.
I'm reminded of the Shaun Alexander I saw in 2007, when the former Seattle Seahawks star showed what a running back who doesn't want to get hit looks like. It's not a pretty picture.
There's no question that Johnson is a dynamic player in theory, but at this point in his career, he's totally ill-suited for the demands laid on any feature back.