Break It Down: Chris Johnson’s misery
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a notable play or performance from Sunday.
The Titans are 2-1 and have ripped off back-to-back wins, really in spite of Chris Johnson. Tennessee’s franchise running back has just 98 yards rushing total in three games and is averaging 2.1 yards on his 46 carries.
Sunday was another dud for Johnson, who recently signed a $55 million contract extension after a long preseason holdout. Johnson ran for 21 yards on 13 carries against Denver, a game that the Titans won anyway, 17-14, thanks to a 300-yard passing day from Matt Hasselbeck.
Johnson did pitch in 54 yards receiving, including a 34-yarder that set up a Hasselbeck-to-Nate Washington score. That play was the highlight of Johnson’s season so far — he’s yet to score a touchdown in three games and has not had a run of longer than nine yards.
So, what’s going wrong? Let’s take a look back at Johnson’s effort Sunday:
That’s the setup for Johnson’s second carry of the day, on a 2nd-and-10 just after Denver had scored to take a 7-0 lead. As you can see (thanks to CBS’ graphics), the Broncos are absolutely loading the box, despite this not necessarily being a running down.
There are seven defenders within four yards of the line of scrimmage and an eighth, one of Denver’s safeties, shows blitz off the right side just as Hasselbeck snaps the ball. Tennessee tries to run into this run-heavy defensive look anyway. The result:
There’s just nothing there. Denver has the lane Johnson’s headed for clogged up with three defenders and all of his cutback options are lined with defenders, too. This is just the result of poor blocking combined with the Titans’ blockers being outnumbered.
Johnson wound up getting two yards on that play and Tennessee punted to end the series. The Titans came out on their next possession and went right to the ground again. This time, though, Denver dropped both its safeties and showed a more traditional 4-3 look.
Tennessee had a two tight end set on the field and ran Johnson on a counter. This matchup allowed the Titans to put a hat on every defender, resulting in this:
That’s the biggest hole Johnson had to run through all day — unfortunately for him, this play was called back, but it at least gives the Titans a glimmer of hope in the run game.
However, those moments were few and far between.
Tennessee would later open its fourth possession of the game with another run — the Titans called run plays to start four of their five first-half possession and five of their first six possessions overall.
Considering Denver came into this game, as just about every Titans opponent does, looking to take Johnson away and force Tennessee to the air, that’s not exactly throwing a curveball. And, again, the Titans came out for that fourth possession with a two tight-end, two-receiver look.
They tried to run Johnson wide left, but Denver took that away. This particular one is maybe the most troubling carry of Johnson’s miserable day, though:
The blocking? Not great. The defense is there, sealing off where Johnson’s looking to go. But notice in that picture above that the entire backside of the play is wide open. Robert Ayers (No. 91 in blue) is Denver’s left defensive end on the play and the one responsible for containing Johnson if he cuts back.
Ayers is being blocked out of the play — if Johnson had reversed course at this particular moment, he would have found nothing but green grass, Tennessee receiver Nate Washington blocking and two Denver secondary guys scrambling.
Instead, Johnson hesitated, then tried to squeeze up into the spot where the play was originally designed. He was hit, bounced off a tackle or two and gained five yards.
But to be blunt about it, Johnson is supposed to be better than that. The Titans paid him because he’s capable of busting loose at any time, but part of that requires him to see the openings that other backs and opposing defenders don’t see.
On the very next play, he’s being chased by defensive end Jason Hunter, but had the exact same opportunity.
That’s a run play to the right — which Denver shut off. But again, the entire backside of the play is wide open and at least seven Broncos defenders are sealed off. Johnson’s simply not seeing the field right now the way he usually does, and it’s limiting his chances.
Combine that with his team’s shaky blocking and unimaginative play call, and it’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s also a similar recipe to the one being followed in Atlanta. The Falcons got nothing out of running back Michael Turner Sunday in Tampa Bay — 20 yards rushing on 11 carries — and struggled with some of the same problems as Tennessee did.
Can you count the defenders in that picture? That’s nine Bucs within a five-yard radius of the line of scrimmage, including a safety and cornerback. Atlanta opted to run Turner to the short side anyway.
No chance. The Falcons blocked poorly and Turner had no wiggle room, a combination that resulted in a loss.
Atlanta has a better quarterback and more talented wide receivers/tight ends than Tennessee, but is facing the same dilemma: Teams want to take away the ground game first when they play the Falcons. That’s going to make it tougher for Turner to find huge windows to run through.
But Turner also topped 100 yards rushing in Weeks 1 and 2, partially because Atlanta opened the playbook and spread teams out in those games.
Somehow, some way, Tennessee needs to find a way to do that — a tougher challenge than ever with Kenny Britt likely lost for the season. Sunday’s game was the third straight example of what happens when Johnson doesn’t run well, the Titans fail to execute their blocks and the play calls stay stale.