Chris Johnson has easily met, and perhaps to some exceeded, expectations as a rookie running back for the Tennessee Titans.
Through a half season in the NFL, Johnson not only leads the AFC in rushing with 715 yards, but also has 879 all-purpose yards that also top the conference.
So how much more can Johnson do for a Titans team that has been careful to pace his carries for the long haul, while at the same time giving him as much as he can handle in the offense?
Thus far, Johnson has just 146 carries this season, putting him on pace to stay below 300 rushes, but has also caught 24 passes, including a career-high six for 72 yards Sunday against the Green Bay Packers.
The Titans have worked LenDale White into the offense as well with 98 carries for 404 yards.
But Johnson had his heaviest workload in the overtime win over Green Bay with 30 touches, 24 carries for 89 yards plus the six catches.
“We’re trying to do a little bit more with him each week, and keep in mind, he gets a lot of practice reps and experience on the practice field, and it’s carried over into games,” Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. “He’s making the different catches, the different runs and different cuts. He’s a complete back. He can catch it, accelerate and go.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger wants to be careful not to overload his prized rookie, especially considering the famed “rookie wall” that first-year players reach at around the season’s midway point.
“We’ve thrown a lot at C.J., so I don’t know how much more we’re going to do,” offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger said. “His plate’s pretty full now for a rookie. I don’t know if we’d split him out or do anything. We’ve messed around with it a little bit, but his plate is so full that getting out there and running precise routes and doing all that stuff, that might be down the line next year. He’s pretty much full with nickel package and blitz pick-ups and all the stuff we’re doing there.”
Johnson, however, wouldn’t mind doing even more and says that he feels good, despite eight games plus four in the preseason, which would be the equivalent of a full college season.
“It’s all right. I don’t feel it’s completely full, but I’ve done well with what they’ve got me doing,” Johnson said. “I feel good right now. Hopefully, if we keep winning and if I keep going into the weight room and doing my squats and stuff, that I won’t hit the rookie wall. Right now, I’m going pretty good.”
So what might still be on the horizon for Johnson in ’08?
“There’s still some ways. I feel once we get around playoff time, ‘Dinger will pull out all his tricks,” Johnson said. “I’d like to do more like last week when I got more involved in the passing game. I got more involved in the passing game and showed what I can do out there in space.”
Getting him involved in the passing game is becoming increasingly difficult, as the rookie is now seeing double teams out of the backfield and being spied on by opponents more frequently.
“We’re getting free safeties covering him now instead of linebackers,” Heimerdinger said. “So there are some different things. Houston played one coverage on one side and then doubled C.J. on the other side, so he couldn’t run the wheel [route] and all those things and get deep.”
That has forced Heimerdinger to be on the alert for in-game adjustments, such as the one the Indianapolis Colts employed in the Monday Night Football game with an extra linebacker in place of a safety.
“There’s some things that I’ve got to look for in games to see if somebody has adjusted, and it’s not something they’ve shown on film because of him,” Heimerdinger said.
That’s just one of the far-reaching effects Johnson has done to energize a Titans offense that was plodding and predictable for most of 2007. With more attention having to be devoted to Johnson by defenders, it is allowing quarterback Kerry Collins the chance to pick out one-on-one matchups he likes when Johnson is doubled or spied.
“We’re seeing some different looks, so the ball is going other places,” Heimerdinger said. “People are doubling him in a couple of sets and they’re looking for him, so the ball has got to go some place else.”
Johnson has noticed the attention as well, especially when he drifts into the pass routes.
“Pretty much when I’m coming out of the backfield on pass routes or whatever, there’s always a defensive lineman trying to get his hands on me or trying to double team me and not let me get out in my route or whatever,” Johnson said. “You’ve just got to find a way to get out and beat the double team, and if they’re double-teaming me, it’ll free up somebody else.”
Still, the biggest impact Johnson has had is his ability to provide the home run threat for an offense that was in search of explosiveness.
“He’s been used in the passing game and in the running game,” center Kevin Mawae said. “He’s one of those guys that you find a way to get the ball in his hands. Every time you do that, you know you have a chance at a big play.
“The times that he does touch the ball, we’ve got to make everyone of them count, whether it’s two or 20. … Our mentality is that anytime he touches the ball, it could potentially be a big play. So we try to operate with that premise.”
What to watch for on offense: The Bears might try to do as other teams have done and load the line of scrimmage to try and slow the Titans rushing tandem of Chris Johnson and LenDale White. Given the weather forecast for cold temperatures of 20 mph winds, a chance of show and highs only around 40 degrees, it could be difficult to throw the football. The Titans offensive line will be charged with dictating the tempo here.
What to watch for on defense: The Bears offense had suddenly become viable under Kyle Orton, even scoring 48 points earlier this season against Minnesota. But with Rex Grossman back at the helm, it will be interesting to see if the Bears can remain consistent. More likely, the Bears will need a big play from running back Matt Forte or kick returner/receiver Devin Hester.
Worth noting: This game matches the league’s top two teams in terms of turnover margin. Whoever wins the takeaway battle also likely wins the football game. The Titans have been strong in that regard when it counts most. Kerry Collins does not have a fourth-quarter interception this year.
Prediction: It looks like a typical cold, November Chicago day, meaning yards and points could be at a premium. It won’t be easy for the Titans, but with Grossman’s history of inconsistency, could an interception be the difference for Tennessee. Titans 16, Bears 13