Last year, the Tennessee Titans were careful not to overload Chris Johnson.
The 2008 first-round pick had 251 carries on the season in rushing for 1,228 yards and even sat out the meaningless regular-season finale in Indianapolis.
But as Johnson has reached the halfway point of his second season, he is leading the NFL in rushing with 959 yards, more than 100 yards better than runner-up Cedric Benson’s 837.
And wisely the Titans are beginning to warm up to the idea of having Johnson carry more of the load. In the 0-6 start, Johnson topped just 20 carries once in that span and averaged just under 16 rushes per game.
In the Titans’ two-game winning streak since the bye, Johnson carried the ball 24 times against Jacksonville and 25 times Sunday in San Francisco. Oh, by the way, he’s still averaging 6.7 yards per carry, the highest average of any running back through nine weeks since the merger in 1970.
Johnson has said all along he welcomed more work, noting in training camp that he’d like 25 touches a game if possible. And he worked during the off-season to get ready for that at his home in Florida.
“I talked to [running backs] coach [Earnest] Byner in the off-season and that was the whole thing of me not being in Nashville and working out and stuff,” Johnson said. “I told them that some of the goals I wanted to accomplish and how many times I wanted the ball, and I let them know I was down there in Florida working hard, and they saw by the way I worked in the off-season, that made me able to carry the ball 25 times.”
At the outset of the season, Titans coach Jeff Fisher talked of keeping his running back tandem in place with Johnson and LenDale White. However, in part because of the Titans being behind early in games, and lately because of Johnson’s superhuman speed, the running back carries have definitely been more one-sided. White has 56 rushes this season, including just four carries for three yards on Sunday against the 49ers.
“I think it’s the nature of the teams we’ve played. I’d like to see LenDale get more carries, but it’s just the nature of the teams we’ve played,” Fisher said Monday. “We felt like we need our run game to beat them [49ers] with the speed. And nobody else has done that this year to them.”
San Francisco’s defense entered the week ranked second against the run, but after Johnson’s 135-yard performance, the Niners are now fifth.
As Johnson continues his quest for 2,000 yards, his teammates now fully recognize what a special talent he is in terms of making big plays. Until Sunday, when he scored twice from two yards out, all his touchdowns had been from 52 yards or more.
“Chris is a special talent we know that if he touch the ball and gets on the outside he can go all the way every time,” center Kevin Mawae said.
Hard to tell
Speaking of Johnson, Titans coach Jeff Fisher said the coaches tape from the game was inconclusive when it came to determining whether or not Johnson stepped out of bounds on his 81-yard touchdown run that replay overturned Sunday.
Johnson’s foot was ruled out of bounds at the 40 yard line after a 49ers challenge reversed the call.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever know the answer to that. The shot I believe that the referee got, I believe shows the heel over the white, but it doesn’t show it on the white,” Fisher said. “So the assumption is that he’s out of bounds. The coaching tape is similar to that shot from the truck.”
The Titans and Johnson believed he had his heel up when he approached the sideline and did not step out of bounds.
The defensive line was active getting three of the Titans four sacks of Alex Smith Sunday, forcing two fumbles and helping the secondary pick off three passes with its pressure.
However, that does not negate the seven (six accepted) neutral zone infractions and offside penalties the Titans were hit with. Jacob Ford had three of the penalties.
“We have to get that cleaned up. We had a third-and-1 and a fourth-and-1 neutral zone violations where we could have gotten the ball back, and we allowed drives to continue,” Fisher said. “We’ve got to get that straight. Alex did a nice job with the hard count, but we have to stay focused.”
Fisher offered that it might have to deal with the fact that linemen were getting tired with only seven players up instead of the usual eight.
The Titans will continue to monitor offensive tackles David Stewart (hamstring) and Mike Otto (knee). If one of them is able to make it back, the Titans might make a roster move, perhaps bringing back Chris Davis.
However, Fisher said Alvin Pearman will continue as the team’s primary return man this week against Buffalo.
Also, receiver Justin Gage is getting some tests done on his injured leg.