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Saturday, January 10, 2009
Titans suffer without Johnson in backfield

By Paul Kuharsky
ESPN.com

 
  Kirby Lee/US Presswire
  Tennessee running back Chris Johnson was a force for the Titans' offense Saturday before being knocked out with an ankle injury.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- One of the biggest differences between the 2008 Tennessee Titans and the 2007 version was that the dynamic playmaking abilities of Chris Johnson -- a home-run threat on nearly every snap.

He had a 32-yard run and a 28-yard catch before suffering an ankle injury in the second quarter that knocked him out of the Ravens' 13-10 divisional playoff win.

And suddenly, against a physical defense, the Titans were a lot less threatening.

They'd shown excellent depth all season -- with Chris Carr playing effectively at cornerback, beating Pittsburgh without Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch, even plugging in Leroy Harris at center Saturday for Kevin Mawae.

But without the Johnson dimension, they relied on the "Smash" of their "Smash and Dash" combo and LenDale White didn't offer the same sort of potential. His fumble just before the half cost Tennessee a chance to grab a 10-7 lead at intermission.

And while Justin Gage was spectacular with 10 catches for 135 yards, Johnson probably proved himself the player the Titans could least afford to lose.

"That hurt a lot," offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said of the loss of Johnson, who was in a poncho on the bench sipping something warm in the second half. "You saw CJ's explosiveness and there were some plays there that CJ probably would have done some pretty good things with. That hurt us a lot. But the bottom line is you can't fumble twice inside the 20 and miss a field goal against a team like that."

Does what happened to the Titans minus Johnson make the case for the Titans adding more dynamic playmakers to the offense?

"That's personnel, you've got to ask somebody who's in charge of personnel," Heimerdinger said, politely passing on the topic.

I didn't see general manager Mike Reinfeldt after the game, and he's a background guy on game day and in general.

But I am comfortable offering an answering to the question.

Yes, the Titans need to find more playmakers. Everybody's got irreplaceable stars, I understand. Gage picked up some of the slack. But if Quinton Ganther is active and on the field some and you are only willing to give him the ball once, it means you have to upgrade to someone you would hand it to in the event Johnson falls out and a quicker back is called for. More explosive players at receiver wouldn't be a bad thing to have as well.

Johnson was a revelation this season, a Pro Bowler who showed he was capable of holding up to a weekly pounding and taking nearly half the team's carries.

Saturday, Johnson averaged 8.3 yards per carry before he was hurt; White finished with 4.2.

Linebacker and defensive captain Keith Bulluck wasn't as willing to concede that the Titans were a different team without Johnson.

"Our offense still moved the ball without Chris Johnson," he said. "You were watching the game, you saw the offense get down in the red zone twice and we just didn't get any points. So yeah, maybe we could have been a little more effective with CJ in there, but we were just [about] as effective."

But Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said there was a clear difference once Johnson was out.

"Johnson is a home-run hitter," Scott said. "He made some plays early in the game. We're not going to feel sorry for these guys. We've got five starters on this defense that barely even made it past Week 5. It was a physical game. We try to do this against any back. We try to make it physical, make it a rough day for them. Sometimes they don't hold up."