A beleaguered Buffalo Bills run defense gets another tall order this week when the Tennessee Titans and Chris Johnson come to town.
Or does it?
Johnson’s struggles have extended into a second season for the Titans, and have been a source of frustration for fantasy owners and a head-scratcher for those who follow the team.
In four of his six games this season, Johnson has been held to fewer than 25 yards rushing. For the year, he’s gained 301 yards on 92 carries, an average of just 3.3 per rush, and has not scored a touchdown. He’s on pace to finish the season with 802 yards, which would be a drop from the career-low 1,047 he had last season.
Blame can certainly be spread around, but that’s a pretty dramatic drop in production for a player who is one of only six running backs to ever rush for 2,000 yards in a single season (2,006 in 2009).
“I’m never perfect. Even when I went for 2,000 [yards], I wasn’t thinking I was perfect,” Johnson told the Tennessean earlier this season. “But I wouldn’t sit here and say I’m to blame.”
When that answer raised some eyebrows, Johnson was asked if he really felt he wasn’t to blame. He followed it up by saying, “I wouldn’t think so, but I’m not the guy to sit here and be the guy that points fingers. It’s a situation where I’m only going to be as good as my line is going to be, so we have to work together and get better together.”
The Titans do have three new starters along the interior of their offensive line – left guard Steve Hutchinson, center Fernando Velasco and right guard Leroy Harris (who moved from left guard to right this season).
“We definitely need to get him going,” Titans coach Mike Munchak said about Johnson on a conference call Wednesday. “Two of the last three weeks we’ve run the ball pretty well. The key for us is we need to stay in football games. The Bills have had similar situations where some games have gotten away from them, but for us when the games have gotten away, we haven’t had the opportunity to run the football any longer.”
In Tennessee’s four losses, Johnson has 59 carries for 186 yards, an average of just 3.2 yards per carry. Take away a 25-carry, 141-yard effort in a loss to Houston, however, and those numbers drop to 34 carries for 45 yards in the other three losses, barely a yard per rush.
“He has to be a big part of the next 10 weeks,” Munchak said. “We’re 2-4. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us if we’re going to get back in this thing, and we need our running back.”
Johnson’s offensive line hasn’t done him any favors. The Titans are rushing for just 70.2 yards per game, last in the NFL.
“We don’t focus too much on individual players and getting them going,” Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “Statistically, he’s a guy that over the years is used to putting up crazy statistics. That hasn’t happened for us this year, but there have been moments.
“Last year was kind of a similar year for us. We struggled running the ball most of the time, but then there were games at Cleveland or at Buffalo where we ran the ball really well and we put up good stats.”
Johnson did enjoy one of his better days last season against the Bills, running for 153 yards (his second-highest single-game total).
“We have to get everybody to the ball because a lot of the times the first guy in there is not tackling this guy by himself,” Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. “We have to get on and off the blocks and get 11 guys to the ball.”
“He scares you. Every time he touches the ball, he scares you,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said. “You can still see that electric speed and that electric quickness that he has. Yes, he hadn’t made as many yards and the statistics are down but I’m telling you, defensive coaches hold their breath every time he touches it.”
Johnson’s production has picked up the past few weeks, sandwiching two good games around a poor one. Last Thursday against a traditionally tough Steelers defense, he gained 91 yards on 19 carries.
“He ran pretty well and that helped us stay with our game plan, be more productive and win the football game,” Munchak said.