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Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Titans castoff now a key piece for Colts

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

 
  Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
 Tennessee's running backs will have to deal with a defensive lineman on a mission -- Antonio Johnson -- who was let go by the Titans and is now playing for the Colts.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

The Titans proved themselves to be nine players deep on their defensive line in an excellent performance against the Steelers.

Sunday in Indianapolis, Tennessee's running backs will try to get past a player the Titans did not judge to be worthy of a spot in that group, who's now starting for the rival Colts.

When Indianapolis wanted to sign Antonio Johnson off the Titans' practice squad on Nov. 4, Tennessee deemed him expendable rather than doing what was necessary to create a roster spot to promote him.

Since then, Johnson has played in seven games, starting the last three, while averaging four tackles and playing a part in an improved Colts defense.

"He's been good," said Colts president Bill Polian.

"We went through a couple before we got him, but he's a great fit," Colts strongside linebacker Clint Session said. "I love playing behind him. He keeps me free. I run sideline to sideline without getting touched. That comes from his play. They're double-teaming him and he's been filling in for us great. He probably wasn't their guy there, but he's our guy here."

The Colts were thinned out on the interior defensive line very early, losing their best, biggest players against the run when Quinn Pitcock retired before training camp and Ed Johnson was cut for disciplinary reasons after Week 1.

So if Antonio Johnson was a solution sitting on the Titans' practice squad, why wasn't he en route to Indianapolis until the Colts were preparing for Week 10 in Pittsburgh?

"I don't like to poach, I really don't," Polian said. "I wish there were some other way that we could deal with that and my hat's off to them, they've done a great job. We probably should have got him earlier -- it was the idea of the poach and that he had been hurt the previous year so we really weren't sure. But if we were smart, we would have got him six weeks earlier."

Sign a player to your 53-man roster off someone else's practice squad, though, and you've got to keep him for three weeks. With his roster in flux because of injuries, Polian said he worried that he might be handcuffed with Johnson. When things settled down and the Colts still needed help, they made the call.

Johnson said he was glad to get the chance.

"I'm with the Colts now, I've got to play Colts football and I'm just happy to have this opportunity, I'm happy to be back out on the field playing football," Johnson said. "It's been good. I've come in and just tried to do my role, help out on the run, that's what they got me here for. That's what I do, every play I just try to make something happen."

Johnson was rated as a late-bloomer with enormous upside by the Titans when they spent a fifth-rounder on him, the 152nd pick overall, when he came out of Mississippi State in 2007. But he blew out a knee early in training camp as a rookie and after a year of rehab, couldn't beat out Kevin Vickerson, a run-stopper the Titans added during the year Johnson was on IR.

The Titans stashed Johnson on the practice squad and still hoped he'd blossom. But when the Colts came calling, Tennessee chose to keep three non-contributors on offense -- receivers Paul Williams and Chris Davis and running back Chris Henry -- ahead of him.

"We were disappointed we lost a draft choice that we felt had potential to eventually play for us, but at that point we did not have a spot roster-wise for him," coach Jeff Fisher said. "He'll get off the ball and play hard and fly around. We thought he was just going to take a bit more time."

And, of course, the Titans could not have foreseen that for their Week 16 showdown with Pittsburgh, they'd be without Albert Haynesworth (knee) and Vickerson (serving a four-game suspension for a violation of the policy against steroid and performance-enhancing drugs).

"Had Antonio been here, there would have been a pretty good chance he'd have been active for us," Fisher said.

Instead the tackle signed to fill the practice squad slot, Amon Gordon, worked as Tennessee's third tackle against the Steelers.

Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Titans running backs LenDale White, Chris Johnson and Quinton Ganther probably will be trying to get by Johnson when they go up the middle.

He and Daniel Muir, who has played in only five games, are the lone Indianapolis defenders who weigh more than 300 pounds -- Johnson is listed at 310, Muir at 312.

Last Thursday, after the Colts had clinched a playoff spot with a win at Jacksonville, Johnson was asked about what has unfolded in Tennessee since he left.

"That doesn't have anything to do with me anymore," he said. "They've got some guys down. I don't care if they're regretting it or what. My agent told me they weren't trying to activate me anytime soon. My agent let them know, they didn't take any shot at me ...

"I want to go against them, next week they're going down. I don't have anything to brag about, I come out every game and just try to do my best. So I look forward to playing them."