Just fewer than five minutes remained in the second quarter when Ahmard Hall watched the running back dart through a hole on the left side and burst into the open field.
That’s when the Tennessee Titans’ fullback raised his left hand with the index finger extended – football sign language for “Here comes a touchdown.”
The fifth-year veteran should have known better. This was the final game of the preseason and Chris Johnson, who presumably would have gone the distance in that situation, was not the one with the ball. Johnson, in fact, was not even in uniform – and he was not the only one.
A significant number of big-name players from both teams were merely spectators, resting for the start of the regular season, as the Titans defeated the Saints 27-24 on Thursday before a sellout crowd at LP Field.
In addition to Johnson, the Titans held out wide receivers Justin Gage and Nate Washington as well as guard Leroy Harris. New Orleans chose not to play quarterback Drew Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston, running back Reggie Bush and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, among others.
“We got look at some younger players … but we made some plays,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We ran the football. … The bottom line is when you hand the ball off you should make plays, and we did.”
What looked to Hall to be a sure-fire touchdown turned out to be a 31-yard gain for Samkon Gado, the third of four different Tennessee running backs who saw action in Johnson’s absence. Gado was caught at the New Orleans 16, and the play set up one of two Rob Bironas field goals.
“I knew (the defender) possibly had the angle,” Gado said. “And I didn’t know if I had enough in the tank to outrun him. But, oh, well, he made the play.”
The opportunity to measure the four backs of varying age and experience against one another is what qualifies for drama at the conclusion of the preseason because it is a certainty that there is not room on the final roster for all of them. It’s possible that two of the four will be released by Saturday afternoon, when all NFL teams must be down to 53 players – a reduction of 22 from the current number.
Javon Ringer started and carried four times for 64 yards, which included a 47-yard, first-quarter run on which he too was run down in the open field. Veteran Alvin Pearman (six carries, 36 yards, one touchdown) followed Gado (13 carries, 63 yards) before the end of the first half and rookie LeGarrette Blount (15 carries, 59 yards) closed out the night.
“I’m going to choose to think that I did the best I could with the opportunities that were given to me in the time I had,” Gado said. “… We’ll see what happens from there. … The bottom line is that there are 53 guys who get to do this. I trust that I did well enough to prove to them that I deserve to be one of those 53 guys.”
Johnson never did break a long run in his three preseason appearances. Far from it, in fact. He prepped for the Sept. 12 opener against Oakland with 39 yards on 19 attempts, none of which went for more than eight yards.
He can feel confident, though, that he’ll have his opportunities.
Seven of the nine touchdowns scored by Tennessee during the preseason came on running plays.
Blount put them ahead for good against the Saints when he went over the top from one yard out on the first play of the fourth quarter, and Pearman iced it when he scored on a 5-yard run with 3:18 to play.
Ringer, the team’s leading rusher in the preseason, averaged 6.6 yards per carry and had a 46-yard carry against Seattle in addition to his long run against the Saints. Of the Titans’ 75 offensive plays in this game, 41 were runs.
“I would run behind any of (the offensive linemen) any given time, any given day,” Blount said. “I just definitely think that with them blocking as well as they do and with mine and C.J.’s and Javon’s and everybody else’s running style there’s nothing that we can’t do.
“If we want to run the ball, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Not all of them. And not always all the way.