Amid all the speculation about a possible holdout by Chris Johnson, the inevitable comparisons to Emmitt Smith’s 1993 season surface. Smith, who would go on to become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, held out for two games, both Cowboys’ losses. Owner Jerry Jones signed Emmitt a few days later and the Cowboys went on to win 12 of the final 14 regular season games and the Super Bowl.
If Johnson holds out in September, will the Titans miss him as much as the Cowboys missed Emmitt?
(In case you’re wondering, Smith’s replacement, Derrick Lassic, rushed 35 times for 127 yards in those two games, a 35-16 loss to the Redskins and a 13-10 loss to the Bills.)
Here’s a look at the run defenses of the first four teams on the Titans’ schedule.
Week 1: vs Oakland
Last year’s record: 5-11
Last year’s yards per carry defense, rank: allowed 4.5 ypc, T-24th
Last year’s Football Outsiders’ run defense rank: 25th
Key free agent loss for run defense: MLB Kirk Morrison
Key FA addition for run defense: OLB Kamerion Wimbley
Key draft additions for run defense: first-round MLB Rolando McClain, second-round DT Lamarr Houston
McClain has all the tools to be better than Morrison, who was sixth in the league last year with 133 tackles, but he won’t be better right away, in his first NFL game. Houston should become an upgrade over Gerard Warren. I’m skeptical the Raiders can convert Wimbley from a 3-4 edge rusher, not known for being stout against the run, into an effective 4-3 strongside backer. The Raiders can be run on, with or without CJ.
Week 2: vs Pittsburgh
Last year’s record: 9-7
Last year’s yards per carry defense, rank: 3.9, T-5th
Last year’s FO run defense rank: 9th
Key FA loss for run defense: none
Key FA addition for run defense: ILB Larry Foote
Key draft addition for run defense: second-round OLB Jason Worilds
The Steelers should be even better against the run this year. They didn’t have any significant losses and besides reacquiring Foote, should also have a healthy DE Aaron Smith returning from injury.
CJ hasn’t had a lot of success against Pittsburgh, gaining only 57 yards, with a long of 32, in 15 attempts last year. The previous year, CJ had just 69 yards, but 21 of them provided the Titans with the go-ahead touchdown. CJ was able to speed around the corner on that TD, a play that Javon Ringer doesn’t have enough speed to make.
The difference in this year’s game could be one big play like that and the Titans don’t have a back who can be that playmaker. One thing in the Titans’ favor will be the absence of Big Ben; they might not need many points to win.
Week 3: at NY Giants
Last year’s record: 8-8
Last year’s yards per carry defense, rank: 4.2, T-14th
Last year’s FO run defense rank: 22nd
Key FA losses for run defense: MLB Antonio Pierce, OLB Danny Clark
Key FA addition for run defense: none
Key draft additions for run defense: first-round DE Jason Pierre-Paul, second-round DT Linval Joseph, fourth-round MLB Phillip Dillard
The Giants ended last season on a horrific note, giving up over 40 points in three of their last four games, and were humbled by surrendering 206 rushing yards to Jonathan Stewart, and 247 overall, in a Week 16 loss to Carolina. The G-men used five of their seven draft picks on defensive players and a sixth on a punter, which tells you how they feel about their defense.
Week 4: vs Denver
Last year’s record: 8-8
Last year’s yards per carry defense, rank: 4.5, T-24th
Last year’s FO run defense rank: 18th
Key FA loss for run defense: ILB Andra Davis
Key FA additions for run defense: DE Justin Bannan, DE Jarvis Green, NT Jamal Williams
Key draft additions for run defense: none
Last year the Broncos changed to a 3-4 defense and had their growing pains. They should be improved somewhat this year with their free agency gains. Davis’ departure, and Denver’s failure to draft a replacement, leaves a void that will have to be filled by someone. This is another defense, like the Giants’, that should be middle of the pack versus the run this year. The Titans should be able to run on them, though not as well as they could with CJ.
The first four teams on the Titans’ schedule had a combined 2009 record of 30-34 and the team with the best record, Pittsburgh, will be without Ben Roethlisberger. Those first four games are all winable, even without CJ, but… if he’s still a holdout, it will be bad news because the schedule gets tougher after that.
Four of the next five will be on the road against tough opponents, Dallas, Jacksonville on Monday night, San Diego and Miami, with a home game vs the Eagles sandwiched in between. After a home game with the Redskins in Week 11, the Titans finish with five division games in the last six. That five-game stretch, followed by the five division games, will be tough to win even with CJ.
A repeat of last year’s 8-8 record doesn’t seem feasible without CJ unless Vince Young has a great year.