It seems a safe bet that the Tennessee Titans’ run game could not have been much worse than what it was during the first part of this season.
Yet if coach Mike Munchak was willing to wager, his money would be on the fact that — when all is said and done in 2012 — his team will be among the NFL’s best in that regard.
“We’re getting a feel for what we’re trying to do, I think, and it’s showing the last six weeks, I think, as far as our running game being much better,” Munchak said Monday. “I think it’s as good as any running game out there. And I think when the season ends that will prove out.”
With six games remaining, the Titans still are not among the top half of the league in average rushing yards per game but they’re headed in the right direction.
Following Sunday’s 37-3 victory at Miami, which included a season-high 37 runs, 177 yards and Chris Johnson’s fourth rushing touchdown in as many games Tennessee is 17th in rushing offense. That is up seven spots from a week earlier — the biggest jump yet in a stretch of four straight weeks of improvement.
It ranks even better in rushing touchdowns (tied for 12th) and is fifth in average yards per carry at 4.8. Johnson is one of just six backs with at least 800 rushing yards so far this season and one of only five running backs among the top 25 with an average of 5.0 yards per carry or better.
“I felt coming into the Miami game, we felt very confident that we could run the ball and we did,” Munchak said. “We’ve been playing good defenses and we knew it would be a challenge, but I think the confidence has gotten a lot better.
“I think [the coaches] hung together with that they believed in. I think CJ was the same way. He believed in what we were doing. We knew … all we need was more opportunities, which we finally got in certain games and confidence grew. All of a sudden, CJ takes a run in the game [Sunday] that may have been a four-yard loss in Week 1 and it turned into a -yard touchdown in Week 10. That’s the difference.”
The touchdown run came late in the first quarter and gave the Titans a 14-0 lead. It also happened on a play that looked as if it would net little or no yards. Johnson started right, found nowhere to go, cut left and eventually up the field to the end zone.
That one gain equaled the amount of rushing yards he had on eight attempts in Week 2 against San Diego and was more than four times what he managed in Week 1 against New England, when he finished with four yards on 11 carries.
Three times in the first six weeks of the season Tennessee ranked last in the league in rushing offense.
“Instead of having a minus run, we’re getting plus-3,” Munchak said. “So you’re not seeing us have the minus runs. That’s what killed us. CJ had eight carries for 16 yards in some of those games but it was because he had five minus runs. … You just can’t win football games doing that, and I think that was our biggest problem.
“… I think when you run the ball a lot then you’re not pressing as much. … He knows he’s going to get 15, 20, 25 runs now so I think his mindset is a lot different. He’s just running more relaxed and confidently.”
The Titans still run the ball fewer than most teams. Only three — Oakland, Jacksonville and New Orleans — average fewer rushes per game than their 22.2.
After just 19 attempts in the first two games combined, Johnson has averaged just shy of 19 attempts in the eight games since. The game at Miami was the third this season in which he ran it 20 time or more but the first that he did so in a victory.
“I think we’ll do whatever it take to stay on the field,” Munchak said. “If you can run — believe me — it opens up a lot, it opens the play-action game. … I think we’ll get the run in there and get it rolling.
“… I thought a lot of the blocking wasn’t as bad as people thought it was. We just said, ‘Hey, we have to be patient’ and I think we did that. What you saw is what we’re going to have to be the next six weeks.”