The Tennessee Titans run game is broken. This is no secret. In many ways, this problem has been front and center since 2010. The recurring question seems to be: What's wrong with Chris Johnson? The prevailing answer seems to be that he's not as decisive at the point of attack, and that he hasn't been the same player since his record setting season in 2009. While there may be some truth to this, I don't believe it's nearly this cut and dry.
Before we get into the film, let's first look at the statistics.
Pretty compelling stuff when you just look at the hard numbers. However, what's lost in in these statistics are the huge variances. Since CJ entered the league, only Adrian Peterson has more explosive plays (using an arbitrary number of 25 yards). The explosives are an enormous part of Chris Johnson's production:
|Chris Johnson Explosives
|Chris Johnson Other
Being top 2 in explosives is obviously a good thing. Being #1 in negative plays over the same period is not. Johnson has 379 runs of zero yards or less accounting for a whopping 24% of his runs. It's these numbers found within his statistics that you see the polarity his game - one that divides much of the fan base. A player frequently pressing in search of another explosive, even if it's at the expense of average productivity.
So, where is the old Chris Johnson? Well, I'd argue that it's the same Chris Johnson. Fact is that he still led the league in negative plays in 2009. When you lead the league with an amazing 17 plays over 25 yards for 772 yards, fans tend to turn a blind eye to the negatives.
Beyond the statistics, I went back and watched a few plays to understand the data. I expected to see a Chris Johnson powered by more spread concepts with Vince Young at QB. Yet, that's not what I found at all. The run game looked similar to the one we have today, which isn't surprising given that Loggains worked under Dinger. The difference is that CJ just happened to get to the third level more often. Still, he just averaged 3.6 YPC in the plays between the highlights.
In rewatching the Seattle game, I saw a Chris Johnson that's doing a better job of taking what the defense is giving him. The hard part to swallow is that CJ can only take what is blocked for him in between the tackles. Never more. Sometimes less.
First play of the game. Titans line up in 12 personnel out of the pistol and attempt an outside zone run against an 8 man front. The play is well blocked. CJ reads the EMLOS correctly. For a quick lesson on what he's "reading", here are the rules from the Godfather himself, Alex Gibbs (emphasis mine):
TB READS: Read the helmet of the 2nd down linemen OUTSIDE the center (shaded NG does NOT count). Do not read the OLB. If his helmet goes inside, turn the ball upfield just outside of him. If his helmet goes outside, switch read to next inside down lineman (usually a DT). If that helmet also goes outside, cut the ball back across his face. If it goes inside, cut the ball upfield between him and the lineman you first read.
TB…One Cut Rule: You are only allowed to make one cut and then you MUST get upfield at full speed. Do NOT cut until you have reached the LOS and do NOT "dance" in the hole. The best cut is NO cut !!
Chris Johnson gets the first part right here. The EMLOS is outside the tackle, so CJ takes the run inside. At this point, he needs to take the run full speed in a straight line. Instead, he tries to cut it back in the hole, leaving yards on the field.
This run is in the 3rd quarter. Not a flashy run, but easily one of my favorites from the game. Again, outside zone out of 12 personnel. Same as last time, the EMLOS gets upfield outside the tackle. CJ wisely takes the vertical crease for a couple of yards. Not a huge gain here, but I think in some instances in the past CJ may have tried to cut this back, which would have resulted in a loss. And, therein lies the rub. Even when Johnson does what's asked of him, he's not breaking off big runs on these plays between the tackles, and almost never picks up yards after contact.
I'm not going to get into too much more detail because there's not a whole lot to learn that these plays don't illustrate. The offensive line is complicit, and not getting a pass here. They struggled against one of the better run defenses in the league, and really have had issues all year. Perhaps later we can get more into evaluating the offensive line, but for the sake of brevity, we'll leave that for another post. For now, let's try to understand how we fix our issues moving forward. And, let's consider two things that we understand about our personnel:
1. Chris Johnson and this Offensive line aren't wired to run between the tackles. We can split hairs over who shoulders the majority of that blame, but I don't think there's any arguing that this is a fact at this point.
2. Despite Chris Johnson's struggles, he remains a dynamic threat in the open field.
Synthesizing these two issues into a solution doesn't require higher thinking. This staff has to find better ways to get Chris Johnson the ball in space. (Now, I should at least include here that I don't think one of the highest paid feature backs in the league should require this much creativity. That is, I believe, at this point, that Chris Johnson is basically a specialist, if only because he can't execute the basics with consistency. These points aside, we kind of are where we are, and it's not exactly productive to languish over what should or could have been. We wanted to be a running back by committee, between the tackles, power run team. That reality is inconsistent with the play we're putting on the field, and I don't see that changing so long as CJ remains the focal point of the game.)
With all this said, what are some reasonable (ie. outside of going full blown spread) ways that we can creatively get the ball into space?
For starters, CJ needs to be more involved in the passing game. The staff would be wise to look at the passing game to CJ as an extension of the run game, as opposed to viewing it through the prism of taking current targets away from Titans receivers. Put another way, increase targets in the short passing game as an alternative to runs. Chris Johnson currently ranks 31st in the league in passing targets among running backs. He's been targeted a total of 14 times. I can't speak for all the games, because I haven't charted the data, but I'd wager that the majority of these plays were checkdowns, as opposed to designed pass plays for CJ. In the Seattle game, Johnson had 4 targets, yet only one of them was a designed play for him.
2nd down and 15. 11 personnel out of a 3x1 set. Defense is spread out. We call a screen pass. The play isn't even blocked all that well. But, when you get CJ the ball in space, he still flashes.
Beyond this play, I haven't been overly impressed with the effort to get the ball in space. Sure, this last game there was more desire to get CJ to the edge, but that seemed almost exclusively limited to outside zone, one sweep play, counter, and power. So, I looked around the league to other similar running backs to help illustrate some more creative ways to use Chris Johnson.
Basic draw play here. Note the placement of the safeties and the 4 wide formation. If you spread the field, and the defense plays 2 high and accounts for each receiver, you'll only face 5 guys in the box. We seem to have a knack for the alternative. Consolidating blockers into tight quarters, which invites defenders into the box without consequence. This strategy is fine with a downhill runner that can move a pile, but it doesn't fit Chris Johnson.
This is probably my favorite play of the bunch, mostly because it captures the creativity that Detroit has shown with Reggie Bush this year. The Lions break the huddle in 11 personnel and start with Joique Bell in the backfield, and Reggie Bush split out in the slot. Bell motions to the strongside of the play, taking a linebacker with him, and leaving the middle of the field wide open. Tackle pass sets. Playside guard and center leak out to the middle of the field to block. Reggie catches the screen in the middle of the field on his way to a touchdown.
I don't think Chris Johnson is as good a receiver as Reggie Bush in terms of route running and winning in man coverage, but he's more than than capable of making plays in the screen game.
This play is similar to the Kansas City draw play schematically. The Eagles spread the field with 4 receivers against a two high look. This leaves a distinct advantage for the offense. Great run blocking by the offensive line, but when the zone principles don't have to concern themselves with getting to the second level, all blocking gets easier. Philly runs an inside zone play here (maybe with the QB on a read). The BSG easily washes out the 1 tech, clarifying the read for Shady McCoy from the very beginning and creating a huge hole.
This play is probably asking a little much out of Loggains. The Eagles line up Desean Jackson in the backfield and motion him to the strongside of the play. Playcall here is perfect given that the Bucs blitz themselves right out of the play. Motion moves the focus to the field side of the play (safety included). The guard and center leak out to the boundary side, and the screen is thrown to Shady. He takes this play for a huge gain.
In general, my thoughts are the same with the majority of the fanbase - we need to get Chris Johnson the ball in space. This isn't an earth shattering idea, nor are the playcalls outlined above. And, admittedly, this idea is much easier outlined in theory than executed (which is true for most concepts). Still, you'd at least like to see a little more effort and creativity out of our young playcaller. Chris Johnson remains one of the most threatening players in the league. He's a legitimate weapon, albeit one that requires a fairly specific environment. Creating that will have to involve this staff getting out of their comfort zone some by spreading the field to run at times (even if it's from under center), and getting CJ involved more in the passing game.
I don't subscribe to the idea that Chris Johnson is running differently than he used to (at least not this year). I think he's the same player today that he was in 2009. Circumstances have just afforded more opportunities for him to get into space that year in the conventional run game. Maybe that was better offensive line execution. Maybe it was that the league was still reacting to Johnson's tendencies. Whatever the case, what we know now is that the current playcalling in the run game is broken. I'd say from a long term perspective that Johnson has proved he cannot be relied upon as a feature back. For now, this staff would be wise to improve the scheme in which he operates. The current one isn't the answer.