Boclair: Big plays for Titans, Jaguars likely to come in short gains

Sunday, October 17, 2010 at 10:45pm

The more we see of Chris Johnson, the more it starts to look as if greatness has boundaries. Limitations. A maximum capacity.

It’s like a record producer who tries to find the right balance between the drums, guitars and vocals, etc., because not all of them can be cranked up at once. With everything in proper proportion, the results can be unforgettable.

The prevailing theory through the first five weeks of this season is that Johnson’s greatness has been diminished somewhat by an increase in the number of short gains and a dip in the number of game-breaking runs. More likely, his greatness has been transformed. It might be a mellower sort of greatness (unplugged, if you will), but look closely enough and it’s there.

Lost in the spate of Johnson’s 100-yard games down the stretch in 2009 was a shift in how he was used — a shift that has carried over into this season and had a direct effect
on his statistics.

“I know his [yards per carry] average is going to be down because last year he didn’t carry it in short-yardage or goal-line situations until the end of the season,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. “At one time his average was 6.8 or 6.9, and then we started using him at the goal line.”

There has been no such delay this season.

At a time when many teams carry a big, bruising back to use in short yardage and goal-line situations (see Brandon Jacobs, Thomas Jones, Chester Taylor, et al.), Johnson, at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, is the one who pounds it up in there for the Titans. And he does so successfully.

Johnson entered Week 6 tied for the NFL lead in third-and-one conversions with five (in six attempts). That matched the number of conversions he had in those situations last season (in seven attempts) in what universally was hailed as one of the best overall performances by a running back — ever.

Not only that, but Johnson was the league’s leader in rushing touchdowns with six. Half of those came from the 1-yard line, including the two he scored in the fourth quarter of the 34-27 victory at Dallas. Only one came from outside the 10.

At this time a year ago, he had just one rushing touchdown, and that was on one of his classic 57-yard dashes. At his current pace, Johnson will at least tie the franchise record for rushing touchdowns in a season (19) set by Earl Campbell back in 1979.

Yards are nice, but it’s easy to make the case that the two most important elements of any football game are touchdowns and first downs. Touchdowns put points on the board. First downs keep offenses on the field, which increases the potential for points.

So far this year, no one has been better than Johnson in either category.

Keep that in mind Monday night, when the Titans face the Jacksonville Jaguars in a critical AFC South matchup.

Tied with Johnson for the most third-and-1 conversions coming into the week was the Jaguars’ Maurice Jones-Drew (five-for-seven), whose only touchdown run thus far has been from one yard out.

There’s a pretty good chance one of them will make a great play that will factor prominently into the outcome. It just won’t necessarily be a long play.