ST. LOUIS -- So where’s that been?
The Tennessee Titans have been talking about the necessity of an effective run game and the components they have to make it happen for an awfully long time.
Sunday against the Rams, for the first time all season, the Titans got the sort of combination of carries and yards they’ve envisioned. Thanks to 35 runs for 198 yards, they beat St. Louis 28-21 and moved to 4-4 overall.
“We stayed with it,” left tackle Michael Roos said. "...I think we knew we could run the ball on them and impose our will on them. I wish there was something different we could pin point. I think it’s just a matter of we were doing well enough early and we were able to stay with it. We were getting 4, 5, 6 yards at a time.
“A lot of it’s rhythm, it gives the running backs rhythm, it gives us rhythm and the quarterback.”
Johnson came into the game with a long run of 23 yards and upped it to 24. He had runs of 24, 23, 19, 18 and 15 yards while Greene mixed in some drive-extending short-yardage conversions.
The Titans started with stretch plays that forced St. Louis to cover the width of the field, then sprinkled in counters that were effective against the aggressive front.
“We got those guys flowing on stretches hard,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said.
“We lost the edges,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher said. “CJ, obviously when he gets on the edge, he goes. We edged it up all week and we emphasized it and so I haven’t looked at it, but I’m sure we had a number of guys who made mistakes.”
Johnson said he went to coach Mike Munchak early in the week and asked if the Titans could go back to what was a tradition early in his career: A coach-less Thursday meeting where the running backs and offensive line discussed their perspectives on plays and gained an increased understanding of each other’s perspective.
Johnson said the Titans had such meetings early in his career. Veteran Kevin Mawae organized and ran them until the team went a different direction at center after the 2009 season.
Munchak gave his blessing to Johnson’s request. Instead of a running backs-only meeting and an O-line-only meeting, the two were combined. Roos ran it and Johnson felt like it was part of the reason for Sunday’s success.
“Our offensive line, they covered those guys up and pushed them back and re-established the line of scrimmage,” Johnson said. “And there were more opportunities, I had 23 carries and Shonn had nine carries.”
The Titans came in averaging 25 carries since Week 1 and ran the ball 35 times at the Edward Jones Dome.
Of course there is a major chicken and egg argument about running success and its link to running opportunity. Did the Titans run well because they ran a lot, or did they run a lot because they ran well? There are other factors, but I am in the camp that says good play produces the opportunity to run, not vice versa.
Per ESPN Stats and Info: Johnson gained 108 of his 150 rushing yards before first contact. Before his first rushing score of the season, he has a league-high 17 red-zone runs without a rushing TD.
Locker threw two interceptions and didn’t play very well, but thanks to the run game, he didn’t have to.
Loggains said in a game like this, the quarterback should be judged on how he did on third down (four-for-five for 62 yards and three first downs as well as a five–yard TD run) and how he did in the red zone (guided the team to four touchdowns in four chances.)
“We said at the beginning of the year we wanted to set things up off of the run, so we wanted to be able to play action and take shots down the field using the run as a threat,” Locker said. “I think when you have a rushing performance like this, it allows you to do that, so we are excited about it.”
Another factor that helped here is the structure of the Rams' defense.
Johnson downplayed it, but with Greene out after an injury in the opener, the Titans faced a steady string of 3-4 defenses. (Only Seattle broke that streak.)
Johnson’s better on the edge, but Loggains doesn’t believe in forcing the ball there against 3-4 fronts that ask for the ball to go inside.
Johnson gained 6.5 yards per rush outside the tackles Sunday, his highest average in a game this season and more than double his season average of 2.9 yards per rush.
In this game, the Titans had both running backs and could send Johnson to the weak spot of a 4-3 which lines up to his strength.
A team that wrote a mission statement that it would run it way back in the summer finally got the sort of game it has long expected.
“When you are not running the ball it is a drag and a drain on your team,” Munchak said. “There is no way around that, no matter who it is. You still want to be winning; you want to be a physical team.
“CJ is a special runner and we think we have a good offensive line, but we just weren’t having results. To watch it finally come together, I didn’t think it was going to take this long, but I am glad it happened.”
The questions from here are, can it happen more regularly and can they win when it doesn’t?