NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 9: Jake Locker #10 makes a hand off to Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans during the season opener against the New England Patriots at LP Field on September 8, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. The Patriots defeated the Titans 34 to 13. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
There's a lot to go over from this game, and I expect to have more film review posts over the week. This one jumped out at me early. It was only the second play from scrimmage. 2nd and 8 and the Titans give the ball off to Chris Johnson. In this contest, there's plenty of blame to go around. In the run game alone, there are more than a handful of players responsible for the poor play against New England. For the purpose of this post, though, we'll highlight a play that's really a microcosm of the issues from Chris Johnson over the past two seasons.
Titans are going to run a basic inside zone play here. You'll note the G-C-G-T all move in unison to the right, as does the LT in this case. Cook stays home to block the backside defender. The origin of the play is for CJ to essentially target the RG.
When CJ talks about makin' his reads, this is what he's talking about. The zone game is designed to punish over pursuit by allowing backside cutback lanes. The runningback takes the ball, reads the defenders, plants, and attacks the hole. Or, at least, that's what the RB is supposed to do. In the play below, there's an obvious play to be made on the backside of this run. To CJ's credit, he sees it.
There's a wealth of space here between the backside Tackle and the Tight End. The offensive line has done a great job with initial combo blocks, and then eventually getting to the second level. Every defender in the box has been accounted for. All that's left to do is for CJ to take what the defense has given him.
And, here's our problem. The reason CJ looks like he's standing still is because he is standing still. He has stopped his forward progress. In front of him, there's a good 4 yards, maybe more if he plays his cards right. The best RBs in the league take a play like this for 6-7 yards with consistency. Instead, CJ sees that the backside end is within arms reach and decides he'd be better off trying to spin around him.
Did I say around him? I meant into him. Or, more accurately, into the back of Jared Cook.
There was a time where this was at least tolerable. In the absence of a passing game, it made sense to keep running into a brick wall until we caught lightning in a bottle. And, there were times when it worked. CJ has never been a back that you could rely on to consistently get you just the yardage needed for he situation. It's really always been boom or bust. Difference is that in the Fisher days, there was a large volume of opportunities, which resulted in a higher chance that CJ would pop off a big one.
Today, this offense no longer relies on CJ to make gamechanging plays. Like most teams in the 21st century, that's reserved for the passing game. And, that's not to take anything away from CJ, but he needs to understand that even if he manages to break off a big one like he's capable of, it will have no where near the impact that it did in year's past. This team is constructed differently. At this point, we're better off with consistent 4 to 6 yard runs, instead of countless no gains, with big gains sprinkled in. What this team needs is 2nd/3rd and manageable. Getting 6 yards on first down, for example, allows the offense the luxury of looking for explosives down the field in the passing game on 2nd and short.
My concern is that Chris Johnson is unwilling to accept this. There's been so much criticism, and so much pressure that he's constantly pressing. The feeling I get watching him is that he's always trying to pop off the big run in an effort to prove the detractors wrong. What he needs to be willing to accept is that the fastest way to shut up the critics is to become a reliable every down back. One that takes what the defense gives him. In doing so, I think he'll also find that the larger runs will actually come more and more often.