Huddle Up: Chris Johnson’s offseason effort should pay off for Titans
Throughout the NFL’s lengthy offseason, “Huddle Up” will provide you with a quick take on an important story or development from around the league …
Chris Johnson was a frequent subject of discussion on Audibles last season. We took a look at why CJ2K was struggling so badly after a 13-carry, 21-yard … uh … “effort” in Week 3, then circled back after he was booed in Week 7 for rushing for just 30 yards in a 41-7 loss to Houston.
Johnson’s issues were numerous in 2011, save for a four-game stretch from Weeks 10-13 in which he averaged 121.5 yards per game — and even during that burst, he had a 13-yard outing in a loss to Atlanta. He had to deal with poor blocking and teams stacking the box, plus his training-camp holdout left him in less-than-pique physical condition and he failed to show the vision of a No. 1 back.
Dipping back into that post-Week 3 analysis, we find a couple pieces of evidence:
Without rehashing everything from the “Break It Down” that ran in the aftermath of Tennessee’s loss to Denver, a quick glance at those two photos show off just about all of Johnson’s problems. In the first, the Broncos have seven defenders pulled up tight and five on the line, in a defense clearly meant to take away the run. In the second, the Titans’ offensive line has been overwhelmed and Johnson fails to take advantage of an obvious and gigantic cutback lane to his right.
Long story short: A lot went wrong.
So it’s not a huge surprise to hear Titans coach Mike Munchak say that he couldn’t determine the exact cause of Johnson’s 2011 struggles when watching film.
“Sometimes he cut back too soon, it was blocked well and then the next time he’d go well ‘I’m going to stretch the darn thing’ and all of a sudden he should have cut back,” Munchak said.
But the answer to restoring Johnson to his elite level — and he still bumbled his way to 1,047 yards rushing last season — might be as simple as this: Johnson has gone all-in on the Titans’ offseason workout program and has added somewhere between eight and nine pounds of muscle.
That’s a complete 180 from last summer, when Johnson held out through the summer and signed a new deal about a week before the regular season opened.
It is easy to take for granted how difficult it is to simply jump into the lineup after a few months off, but Johnson’s long holdout clearly impacted his game. The fact that his conditioning suffered was not the only issue, either — remember that Tennessee was getting used to new quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, the type of transition that takes awhile to complete.
Instead of spending the summer months developing a rapport with Hasselbeck, Johnson stayed away from the Titans. You can’t hang the entirety of Johnson’s 2011 drop-off on that, but it had to be a major factor.
The importance of his presence this offseason should not be undersold either, because the Titans are in the process of choosing between Hasselbeck and youngster Jake Locker at QB. While Hasselbeck plays a game that’s relatively similar to ex-Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, Locker’s athletic ability more closely resembles Vince Young, who split time with Collins in Tennessee.
Regardless of who winds up under center, it’s important that he and Johnson are on the same page — and even more important for Johnson to be around and practicing in June, July and August if the Titans opt for Locker, who has yet to start an NFL game.
No one should be surprised by Munchak’s revelation that he was unable to find the exact cause of Johnson’s disappointing 2011. There were way to many broken parts to narrow it down to one specific trouble spot.
The Titans brought in sturdy veteran Steve Hutchinson to help on the offensive line. They’re opening up the QB competition so as not to simply settle on Hasselbeck. Having Johnson around and committed to working hard all summer, though, could be the most definitive step toward fixing what ailed Tennessee’s run game.