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Based on his play against the Texans, Chris Johnson is not really an NFL-caliber rusher

I do my best to say nice things about players. I recognize they’re doing a difficult, very demanding job, and one that I would be a miserable failure at if I tried. I know there are things going on on the field, in the locker room, and in meeting rooms that I don’t know about or fully understand that very easily might change my perspective.

That said, if I see something, and I think I’m right, I’m not going to try to pull punches.  And Chris Johnson is not currently anything close to a good NFL running back.

To try to figure out what really plagued the Titans’ running game on Sunday, and figure out why Chris Johnson only rushed for 18 yards on 10 carries, I thought I’d watch all of those carries and try to figure out what happened.  The result of that viewing was clear: on the majority of plays, Chris Johnson failed to gain even the yardage I’d expect a marginal NFL running back to gain on that play. On only one play did he display the skills of an above-average back, and that was his only successful run by Success Rate standards.  He does not seem to see the field clearly, does not attack holes aggressively, and when he believes contact is likely, puts his head down and tries to dive forward for a couple yards rather than attempt to make a defender miss or shed a tackle.

You may think that the offensive line is to blame. The Titans are currently ranked worst in the league in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards metric, which tries to separate out the result of blocking from the running back’s play. One of my plans for later this week is to re-watch one of Chris Johnson’s games from the second half of 2009 and compare the Titans’ offensive line play then to how it is now.  Based on Sunday’s play, the Titans’ poor ALY mark this year is deeply misleading. The Titans’ offensive line is not blowing open great big, massive holes for Johnson to run through, but the blocking is plenty good enough for Johnson to have a great deal more success than he is having. Chris Johnson’s poor performance on Sunday was largely attributable solely to Chris Johnson.

Please note this post is about Chris Johnson’s performance running the ball Sunday. I’m not saying the offensive line was great against the Steelers or against the Browns, to pick the Titans’ two prior games, nor that they were bad in those games. I’m not saying anything about him in blitz pickup, or his work as a receiver. This post is based solely on his work as a rusher Sunday.

As to what this means for next Sunday, I really don’t know. To my eye, what Chris Johnson was doing would prevent him from running for good yardage against virtually any NFL defense, behind virtually any NFL offensive line. It is possible that Chris Johnson just had an exceptionally bad game, and that he will run the ball much better Sunday against the Colts. Personally, I am not optimistic about Chris Johnson’s future performance, be it against the Colts, the rest of this season, or the remainder of his NFL career.

For those who are interested, all the gory PBP details are after the jump.

Drive #1
1-10-TEN 19 (13:02) C.Johnson left end to TEN 21 for 2 yards (D.Manning).
21, both WR right, against Texans’ base 34. Play is well-blocked by the Titans, as all 7 Texans in the box are picked up. S Manning has come down as backside contain. CJ runs playside, then spins backside, sees Manning, and starts to dance forward. He doesn’t try to get the edge, he doesn’t try to get the shoot the gap, he kind of starts to move forward trying to get Manning to juke out. What he does not do is anything the least bit aggressive, and Manning makes the tackle after a short gain. Deeply disappointing run by CJ.

2-8-TEN 21 (12:30) C.Johnson up the middle to TEN 22 for 1 yard (K.Jackson).
Balanced 12 personnel against base 34. The play is well-blocked, as even Damian Williams picks up his guy, but CJ this play had me up off my couch f-bombing a storm. If he bothers to run forward here, he has 8 yards at a minimum. Instead, he hesitates, cuts, then is content to let himself get tackled. If this play hadn’t bothered me as much live, I’d be f-bombing him again. Another deeply disappointing run on which even a replacement level NFL running back should gain 4 yards and could easily have had more.

2-10-HST 48 (11:33) C.Johnson left end to HST 46 for 2 yards (B.Cushing).
12 personnel for the Titans, but in a 2×1 set with Mariani (whom Hasselbeck had to tell where to line up) and Avery on the left and Cook flexed wide right. Texans are in base 34, with SOLB Reed out wide near Cook. Play is a toss to CJ with Roos pulling to set the edge. CJ runs outside, sees CB Jackson has come up from 9 yards off the line to try to tackle him and, before he gets to the line of scrimmage, lowers his head and dives forward for a couple yards. I can’t help but think that the play design is for CJ to try to avoid Jackson somehow, maybe by trying to get to the outside, rather than give up and let himself be tackled, and that two years ago he’d have done just that. Another deeply disappointing play by CJ.

Drive #2
1-10-TEN 45 (9:37) C.Johnson right guard to TEN 48 for 3 yards (J.Watt).
21 personnel against base 34. It’s decently blocked, and as soon as he gets to the line of scrimmage, CJ puts his head down and dives forward for a couple yards. Credit to Watt for shedding Scott’s block and getting an arm on CJ, but it’s like he’s giving up on gaining yardage as soon as he sees the possibility of contact with a defender.

Drive #3
2-4-TEN 15 (:51) C.Johnson right tackle to TEN 16 for 1 yard (J.Joseph). FUMBLES (J.Joseph), and recovers at TEN 16. C.Johnson to TEN 16 for no gain (J.Watt).
21, offset I, against base 34. Counter play. Hall should be out front blocking for him, but he slips or is tripped up by Roos moving to block OLB Barwin. This is a play where I’m not sure exactly how much to downgrade CJ. It seems like he sees Joseph’s outside contain and decides not to try to beat him to the corner and instead lowers his body and seems to be diving forward before he even gets to the line of scrimmage, giving himself up to be tackled.

1-10-TEN 21 (15:00) C.Johnson up the middle to TEN 23 for 2 yards (B.Cushing; A.Smith).
12 personnel, with one of Stevens’ rare appearances in the game, against base 34. This is another play where I’m not sure how much to downgrade CJ. NT Cody slows down RG Scott from getting to the second level, but Scott still has a chance to block him, or would if CJ had gone to the other side of Amano. Instead, CJ runs to Amano’s left, and when he sees an unblocked Cushing, lowers his head and tries to plow forward. I don’t know CJ’s reads on this play, so I don’t know if he should have attacked a different gap or cutback.

1-10-TEN 40 (13:44) C.Johnson left tackle to TEN 42 for 2 yards (B.Reed).
Titans in 21, offset I strong right. Texans counter with base 34 personnel, but with a 61 front featuring Cushing on the strong side in addition to Reed. Counter play. Blocking at the point of attack isn’t great, as Roos can’t pass RDE Jamison off to Scott and block ROLB Barwin. There’s a great big juicy cutback lane, though, with a second-level block by Washington. Unfortunately, CJ doesn’t see it, at least until too late. He puts a foot too far, gets slowed down by Watt, and then Reed interrupts what looks like the start of a spin move to attack that cutback. Poor vision by CJ on this play, as I’m sure a back like Foster with great vision would have gotten double-digit yards on this play.

Drive #4
1-10-TEN 20 (7:22) C.Johnson left end to TEN 23 for 3 yards (C.Barwin).
21 against base 34. Play is a fake handoff to Hall, with a pitch to CJ going left. ROLB Barwin reads the pitch and rather than try to beat him to the corner, as he surely would’ve accomplished two years ago, CJ tries to cut inside of him and gets tackled for a short gain. That’s about what I’d expect an average NFL running back not known for his speed, say a Javon Ringer, to do on this play, while a true sub-replacement level back gets tackled by Barwin for a loss. I think that makes this CJ’s best run of the day thus far.

Drive #5
1-10-TEN 20 (3:53) C.Johnson right tackle to TEN 20 for no gain (B.Cushing).
21 personnel againse base 34, though it’s only a 4-man front with ROLB Barwin on the strong side and Reed standing up with Ryans and Cushing. Some credit to the Texans on this play, as LDE Watt gets a good outside rush on Stewart, Reed beats Hall (who I don’t think is particularly good) to the outside, and Cushing makes a nice move to avoid Scott’s block and tackle CJ in the hole. This is the first rush where I blame the offensive line for CJ’s inability to gain more yards, with demerits to Hall and Scott.

Drive #6
3-1-TEN 25 (14:16) (Shotgun) C.Johnson up the middle to TEN 27 for 2 yards (B.Reed).
Titans in 11 personnel and a 2×2 set, with Cook in the slot to the right side. Texans have a 3-man DL and what looks like dime personnel, with Reed and Cushing standing up right behind the DL. Quick hitter inside handoff. Watt has gotten good push down the line first against Scott and down is ahead of Stewart, so CJ cuts to the outside, between the good blocks of Roos and Harris. Amano’s a little slow getting to the second level and can’t seal off Reed, who makes the tackle after a short gain but can’t prevent CJ from getting the first. Good blocking at the point of attack and a third-down conversion, but with better blocking by Scott and Amano this is closer to an 8 to 10-yard run.