Friday, December 9, 2011
Titans rely on Johnson as Saints march in
By Ross Kelly
After Week 9 of the 2011 NFL season, Chris Johnson ranked 28th in rush yards and last in yards per carry among the 52 qualifiers. He failed to reach at least 40 rush yards in four of those games after surpassing 40 yards in all but five games over his first three seasons combined.
Whether the sluggish start was due to rust from his prolonged holdout that cost him all of preseason or the fact that he had to learn a new offensive scheme in a condensed period, Johnson was simply not performing up to his standards.
Yet ever since a visit to the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, Johnson has been on a tear averaging 121.5 rush yards over the past four games.
A big reason why Johnson has gotten back on track is because he is doing a better job taking advantage when defenses do not stack the box. In situations where there are seven or fewer defenders in the box, Johnson has averaged 5.8 yards per carry over the past four weeks compared to 3.2 yards per carry over the first nine weeks.
As the season has gone on, new Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, Chris Palmer, seems to have gained a better grasp as to what formations produce the best results in the running game. He has ditched many of the offensive sets involving fullback, Ahmard Hall, and has gone to more looks with Johnson as the lone running back which was a big part of the Titans’ success running the ball in recent years.
Over his first three seasons, the Titans used Johnson in singleback formations for 45 percent of his rushing attempts. That figure dropped to 36 percent through the first nine weeks this season, but has been at 46 percent over the past four weeks.
Johnson has in turn responded with 6.7 yards per carry in these sets during this stretch.
Credit should also be given to the Titans' offensive line for opening more holes as they were receiving partial blame early in the season for not producing adequate running lanes.
Their adjustments are evident by Johnson's yards gained before contact which accounted for 55 percent of his total rush yards during the first nine weeks but has risen to 68 percent over the last four weeks.
Johnson's recent resurgence happens to coincide with the visiting New Orleans Saints improvements in run defense. Through Week 9 the Saints had the league's worst run defense allowing 5.33 yards per carry.
Since then they have shaved nearly 1.5 yards off that average and have given up 3.92 yards per carry over the past four weeks.
The Saints have been particularly adept at stuffing rushes up the middle and to the left side of their defense. However, they are still struggling to defend rushes to their right side.
That location just happens to be where the Titans excel at rushing. Johnson leads the NFL in rushing yards to the left side of the offense (right side of defense) despite ranking 14th in the league in total rushing yards.
Even with Drew Brees on pace to set many passing records, controlling the ground game may be the key for the Saints. In their three losses they have given up 134 rush yards per game and have had trouble getting off the field.
The Saints have allowed 22 drives this season of five or more minutes, which is the third most in the NFL and have only forced a three-and-out on just 17.6 percent of opponents’ series which is also third worst in the league.