Discussions about the performance of the Tennessee Titans offense in the opening weeks of the season have sounded a lot like a math class.
There’s been addition (defenses putting extra players down near the line of scrimmage), and there’s been subtraction (the loss of big plays in the run game).
The truth of football mathematics in the Chris Johnson era is that there’s always one more on defense. To be more precise, the number of Titans blockers is always less than, never equal to, the number of defenders dedicated to stopping the run.
“It depends on formations, but [defenses] are getting an extra guy,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “The numbers aren’t necessarily the issue, it’s the extra defender. If we’ve got a three-wide package, then they’ve got an extra defender. If we have a base package, there will be an extra defender, and that is happening.
“They … [either] have an extra defender inside, or he’s coming off of the slot, so we have to deal with it.”
Analysis of the Titans run game has spun off all sorts of theories, but everything is related to that basic numbers game. Some believe that subtraction of experience on the offensive line has added to the number of runs Johnson has had for minimal gains. Eugene Amano moved from left guard in place of retired 16-year veteran Kevin Mawae, and Leroy Harris became a first-time starter at left guard.
“Right now there’s probably one or two plays a game that somebody gave us a look that Kevin might already have seen, so we didn’t create the hole that CJ needed, but they’ve played fine,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. “They’re no different run-wise than they were before. I still think that they’re the strength of the team. I really think that that group is what makes us who we are.”
There’s also the sense that through the first four weeks of the season, Johnson was just a fraction here or there from several other big plays. This stems from the well-known combination of patience and execution, which must be mixed in exact proportions to get the desired result.
“If he has been patient enough, then we’ve missed a block that hasn’t sprung him,” Heimerdinger said. “Sometimes he doesn’t stay as patient as he’s supposed to.”
Then there’s the issue of remainders.
When you accept that the extra defender is a fact of life, you leave him unaccounted for and hope that the sum of everyone’s efforts leaves you in the positive.
“There’s always going to be unblocked guys,” right guard Jake Scott said. “You’ve got a ball carrier and you’ve got a quarterback. So there’s going to be two unaccounted-for guys on every run play.
“It’s our job as an offensive line to get the running back to those guys, and it’s his job to make them miss.”
The more things happen that way, the more yards add up.
A year ago, that did not happen until mid-October, when Johnson started his streak of 11 consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing. Prior to that, he topped 100 yards just once in the first five weeks.
“People were loading up against us last year, and they’re loading up even more this year,” left tackle Michael Roos said. “It’s just one of those things. It’s tough to put that aside, but overall I don’t think we’re any better or any worse. It’s just little things that kind of happen here or there during the course of the game.”
Little things always have a way of adding up.