Chris Johnson has heard all the chatter and answered all the questions about what was.
Maybe it was ‘what might have been’ that finally motivated him.
On a wet field and in a steady rain that made it difficult for both sides to hang on to the ball, Johnson won a rushing duel — on multiple fronts — with Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount as the Tennessee Titans managed a 23-16 victory Sunday at LP Field.
Blount, of course, impressed as an undrafted rookie in training camp last season with the Titans. Management waived him with the hope that he would be re-signed to the practice squad, but he instead was claimed by Tampa Bay and promptly rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the Buccaneers.
That did not seem like that big a deal last season, when Johnson remained a productive, big-play threat. It was a little more frustrating this fall as Johnson ran for the first 10 games as if he was stuck in the mud.
The idea that Blount, whose size and style conjures images of Eddie George, could have been with the Titans as a changeup, or even an alternative to Johnson became more and more difficult to ignore.
Head-to-head, though, Johnson clearly got the better of things. He rushed for 190 yards — the third-highest total of his career — and had a season-long gain of 35 yards. Just as important, he fumbled only once.
Blount countered with 103 yards and a long of just 16. He fumbled twice.
Neither of them scored a touchdown.
Maybe this was exactly what Johnson needed. Perhaps he understood the combination of dissatisfaction with his production and disillusionment with the team’s decision to expose Blount to the other 31 franchises.
Perhaps he set out to show those who might prefer Blount the error of their ways.
Whatever the reason, there was no doubt that he ran more decisively and flashed more speed than at any other time since he signed his mega-contract. A few times he even brought the crowd — what there was of it — to the edge of its seats with the very real possibility that he could go all the way, just as he has so often in the past.
“I feel like everybody did the right thing,” Johnson said. “I read my blocks well, they blocked well … and [there were] receivers helping out in the secondary. So I feel everybody executed.”
Make no mistake, this was a day that required a productive running game.
The weather was of a variety rarely seen for a Titans home game. They managed to run it more often than throw it, which was something that happened only one other time this season — a victory at Cleveland back on Oct. 2.
Six of Tennessee’s 10 longest plays in the contest, including the top three, were Johnson runs. Eight first downs came on running plays — a season-high — and for the first time this season the Titans averaged better than five yards per rush.
Plus, there was the fact that Tampa Bay came in with the league’s 26th-best run defense.
Johnson noted on numerous occasions in recent weeks that the Titans failed to take advantage of run defenses that left plenty to be desired in terms of their statistics. That was not the case this time.
This game had the potential to be a complete disaster for Johnson. If he did not outperform Blount, if he did not show he could be effective against one of the league’s worst run defenses, if he did not give some sense that he has not completely lost it he could have lost the local fan base for good.
Blount is a very good back. Johnson, when he plays as he did Sunday, is better.