The speed and moves that were apparent two years ago when Chris Johnson rushed for more than 2,000 yards were back on display at LP Field — for a half.
The last 30 minutes, however, was just more of the same for the Tennessee Titans’ running back, who has treaded through an ineffective and inconsistent 2011 season. Johnson finished with 64 rushing yards on 14 carries, but he had just nine after the break in the Titans’ 24-17 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
“We had some pretty good runs, pretty good execution in the first half,” Johnson said. “Then, in the second half, nobody played really too good and it showed. They came out ready to play. They made plays and we didn’t. Of course it is encouraging to see that we can go out there and actually run the ball. It is just a situation where we have to keep it going the whole game.”
Johnson and the Titans (4-4) watched a 17-7 halftime lead slip away as the running game became nonexistent after rushing for 67 yards in the first half.
Against the Bengals (6-2), Johnson averaged 4.6 yards a carry — a season-high — and did a majority of the damage in the first half. He picked up 55 yards on nine carries, breaking off runs of 20 and 18 yards. He also caught a 21-yard play-action pass from quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Lanes opened up, creating space for Johnson to shrug off arm tackles and cruise in the open field. It was a promising sign for a running back who had averaged just 2.8 yards a carry in the first seven games.
“It was very encouraging to see CJ play look like his old self, getting some holes and burst out there,” fullback Ahmard Hall said. “It felt good to see him do that, but at the end of the day it is about winning.”
In the second half, the windows of opportunity slammed shut. The Titans had just 11 rushing yards, with Johnson picking up nine yards on five carries.
On their way to their fifth straight win, the Bengals also controlled the time of possession battle (32:55-27:05), especially in the fourth quarter. They were on the field for more than 10 minutes in the final period, forcing the Titans to rely on the pass in an attempt to catch up.
“We did a lot of things right in the first half,” right guard Jake Scott said. “We moved the ball well. We ran the ball well. We kept Matt clean. In the second half, we couldn’t convert to anything. We couldn’t stay on the field and extend drives. We weren’t doing well on first down. I think that was a big part of it. Being in second and third-and-long all the time, that’s tough to stay on the field when you do that.”
The Titans punted on their first five drives of the second half, going three-and-out on four of them. Their first possession after halftime was the most discouraging. They started with the ball at the Bengals’ 49-yard line but moved backward six yards and punted.
“You can’t do that. You’ve got to get at least three out of that drive,” Scott said. “If you get 15, 20 yards, you at least get three. To not do that really hurt us.”
At the midway point of the season, Johnson has 366 yards on 121 carries, averaging just over three yards an attempt. By comparison, he rushed for 721 yards on 178 carries (4.0 yards a carry) through the first eight games last year. He also had five games of more than rushing 100 yards during that stretch, compared to just one this season.
“We know we’re capable and we know he is capable,” Scott said. “We’ve never doubted him and we know that’s there when we need it. We just didn’t get it done in the second half.”