Fellow blogger and friend Jamal Black covers the Tennessee Titans for Titans Report. In advance of the Titans/Raiders game this Sunday, I asked him some questions about what the Raiders can expect from the also-inconsistent Titans.
Question 1: Chris Johnson's stats are all over the map – he has two games this year where he's above 5 yards per carry and he has two other games in which he averaged less than two yards per carry. There doesn't seem to be any consistency week to week. What's going on with him and which CJ should the Raiders expect on Sunday?
Answer: Apart from Jake Locker’s injury repetition, this is the most frustrating thing I’ve witnessed from the Titans this year. They spent much of the offseason discussing the run game and trying to address it. If running the football is the engine of their offense, they’d be better off riding a bicycle. It has not been a reliable engine.
I’ll give you more depth here than some other questions because I’ve both considered it and discussed it in-depth numerous times. A big part of this answer is to understand Chris Johnson as a runner. Johnson doesn’t have elite vision. He doesn’t have elite agility. He doesn’t have elite, (or average), power. He has elite acceleration and ability in the open field. The list of things he can’t do is longer than the list of things he can do.
There are some if’s that have to take place before Johnson can utilize the abilities that have made him famous. That there are so many if’s has led to a near-equal level of infamy. No player who ultimately accomplishes more is quite so denigrated by his own team’s fan-base and the reason is this: Absent those if’s, Johnson will not produce even close to his pay grade. What are those if’s?
-Generally and consistently block well, creating creases where Johnson expects them and can trust in them. This avoids the need for great vision and removes most reasons for him to try and create a play using his lack of elite agility and power.
If Johnson trusts in a hole or a crease to be there, and it is, he can burst through that crease and gain four or five yards, (if not more), quickly. If the hole isn’t there, he won’t move a pile and he just might go rogue, running backwards and around… and losing yards.
-Get Johnson to the edge clean. From 2010 through the 2011 season and even part-way into the 2012 season, many speculated that Johnson had lost a step. He’d had plenty of carries and the wear and tear could have worn away his greatest asset.
In 2012, Johnson had a few opportunities to break free for the record making runs that he’d been known for in 2009. He had three runs of 80 yards or longer in 2009 and matched that in 2012, exhibiting that he still had the speed to render traditional angles obsolete and make plays that change games.
In an article from SI this past offseason, it was revealed that Johnson had been recently timed at 4.28 in the 40 yard dash. That’s only slightly behind his record 4.24 speed and nowhere is that speed a greater asset than at the edges.
-Get Johnson into the open field. This is far easier said than done. I wouldn’t say that “open field” for Johnson is one on one with a defender in front of him. Again, he lacks elite agility and power. If he can outrun a defender to a spot, (beat angles), that’s his open field.
Johnson running free is a dangerous thing, especially with blockers in front of him because he sets things up well. He hasn’t had many of these plays in the run game this year, but he’s exhibited what’s possible on his two long receiving touchdowns
I’d say the Titans made it clear this offseason that they knew of these factors. They signed Andy Levitre at LG and drafted Chance Warmack in the first round to play RG. Combined, these two directly address the first bullet point. If done well, a revamped line would also help with the other two bullet points. The gamble was that they could create these if’s more often and Johnson’s valuable traits would rise to the forefront.
The reality is that they have not created the if’s very frequently and Johnson doesn’t or can’t overcome that. On the whole, blocking for the Titans has been quite a disappointment and that boils down to multiple factors.
-Chemistry: They not only started two new players at Guard, they also released their Center from last year and replaced him with a third new player. In fact, of all snaps taken along the interior three positions of the offensive line in 2012 – not a single one remained on the team for 2013. Every starter and every backup was new to the team. Offensive lines rely on chemistry. The Titans were always going to be a work in progress with this.
-Poor Play:Chance Warmack was considered a near-guaranteed talent. He has flashed that talent but he’s also looked every bit a rookie far too often. His technique is lacking, possibly a product of being the best athlete his entire career. His balance is not good and he ends too many plays on the ground. He has improved some as the year went on and he has ample room for growth.I don’t think he’ll retire a bust; however his rookie year is a disappointment.
Rob Turner was a free agent from St. Louis and started the year at Center. He was, to put it plainly, a liability. The Titans faced too much pressure up the middle and even snaps were unreliable. In retrospect, it’s hard to see what two HOF offensive linemen,( one a head coach and the other responsible for the line itself), saw in him. Play improved immediately when rookie Center Brian Schwenke took over.
-Injuries:Right Tackle David Stewart was lost to a season ending injury in 2012 and has never been fully healthy this year. He misses practice regularly and has missed a few games as well. His play suffers from it. Brian Schwenke has missed a few games due to injury, which reduced the Titans to their third Center (Rob Turner has been placed on IR since losing his starting role). The Titans’ third Center has not performed badly, but these sorts of lineups fluctuations hearken back to chemistry concerns if nothing else.
-Other factors definitely include the defenses faced and the lack of a consistent passing game. Rankings have changed around a bit, but when the Titans went into a bye week in week eight, they had faced six or seven of the top ten defenses in the NFL. Even now the Texans, Seahawks, 49ers and Jets are all still top ten defenses. Kansas City is twelfth and the Steelers are a somewhat surprising fourteenth.
Additionally, the Titans faced a slew of 3-4 defenses early in the year. Without looking back, I think it may have been five 3-4 defenses in a row prior to the bye week. It can be argued, (Johnson argued it), that linebackers in a 3-4 make running more difficult. The Titans ran plenty of heavy sets early in the year, which invites defenses to play with more men in the box. This, combined with a passing game that rightfully scares nobody, resulted in a near-exclusive single-high safety look from opponents.
Defensive focus on a run game that isn’t strong to begin with? That’s a recipe for disaster. There are many factors that have led to a situation where the if’s haven’t been met consistently.
Chris Johnson is reliant on those if’s. For anyone who plays very many MMORPGs, Johnson is well compared to a mage. He’s got powerful spells, but he needs warriors to keep him clean so that he can use them. He is both limited and powerful. It is a strange combination.
In the past four games, Johnson’s average has been more favorable. He’s averaged 4.3, 6.5, 2.5 and 5.1 yards per carry. The lone bad game is a strange one because it came against Jacksonville. Shonn Greene had nine carries for a slightly worse average that game so I’m not sure what to make of it.
What’s changed? I don’t think the answer is Chris Johnson. I think he’s the same limited but powerful guy week in and week out. Chemistry along the offensive line is limping its way to acceptable. Someone other than Turner at Center and Warmack gaining some traction have contributed to fewer busted plays.The schedule is also easing a bit as well, both in terms of general difficulty and the absence of 3-4 defenses.
The Raiders can expect to see Chris Johnson make them pay for mistakes if they let those if’s come to fruition. I think there’s a good chance for that to happen. If the DL can’t win one on one matchups and stuff Johnson in the backfield, if they let him get outside or into the second or third level cleanly – it will be a long day.
It also bears noting that Shonn Greene’s role will expand if Johnson doesn’t find success. Greene is a more plodding, less spectacular runner and he may be more suited to the engine of an offense role that the Titans would like to establish with their run game.