NASHVILLE (AP) — Call off the all-points bulletin.
Chris Johnson, the highly-paid running back fans wanted benched or even traded, is a big piece of the Tennessee Titans’ offense once again.
“I never felt like I left,” Johnson said Wednesday. “It was a situation where I didn’t have many chances to actually run the ball and things like that. More and more we’re in the game. We have a chance to continue to run the ball and get better and better throughout the game.”
The man nicknamed CJ2K for racking up 2,006 yards in 2009 has helped erase his horrible start this season with one of the biggest games of his career. But Johnson is right about the limited chances to run. He had 11, eight and 14 carries through the first three games before getting a season-high 25 rushes on Sept. 30, and he responded with 141 yards.
Johnson, named the AFC’s offensive player of the week Wednesday, has helped the Titans (3-4) reel off two straight wins by leading the NFL in rushing with 451 yards since Week 4. That has lifted Tennessee’s rushing offense from last in the league, where it’s been much of the time since Johnson signed his four-year, $53.5 million extension before the 2011 season.
Now Johnson must keep it up Sunday against Indianapolis (3-4) to prove his 195 yards rushing wasn’t a gift from Buffalo and the league’s worst rushing defense. He’ll have to do it with an ankle sore enough he was listed on the injury report Wednesday, even though he practiced fully.
“They’ll be right back unless we stay consistent with it,” Johnson said of his critics.
Johnson has gotten plenty of attention as the NFL’s leading rusher since 2008 when he was drafted out of East Carolina, and the bull’s eye only grew bigger after he became the sixth man in league history to run for at least 2,000 yards. But he struggled in 2011 after sitting out the preseason for his new deal, and he ran for a career-low 1,047 yards last season.
He couldn’t always get back to the line of scrimmage, looked indecisive when he did get into open space and the man timed at 4.24 seconds at the 2008 NFL Combine looked slow. Fans booed, unhappy that 20-yard runs seemed impossible for the man who reeled off long runs left and right during his first three seasons.
“It was pretty tough,” Johnson said. “It was a situation where we had to continue to work and try to get better and throughout the whole situation we navigated by just continued working and believing in each other.”
Then Johnson took the field last week in Buffalo, and he showed his old burst when he cut to the right side end and launched himself at the pylon for a 16-yard TD. That proved merely the warm-up to an 83-yard TD run later in the first quarter where he blew past the Bills. Before the game ended, Johnson added a 25-yard run and a 27-yarder on the game-winning TD drive.
Johnson’s performance made him the man with the most TDs rushing of 80 yards or longer in NFL history with his fourth. He also notched his fourth career game with 190 yards or more, most among active players, and his 195 yards were the third-most in a game this season. He now has an NFL-best 6,141 yards rushing since 2008.
Titans coach Mike Munchak said the key to gearing up the run game and Johnson has been staying in games long enough to be able to keep handing the ball to the running back in the fourth quarter. The coach also credited improved blocking and play-calling too with improving confidence all around.
“The running back, maybe he does have a couple years left …,” Munchak said. “As far as we’re concerned, we’ve just got to keep it going.”
Opposing coaches never took their focus off Johnson, insisting each week they had to stop the same speedy running back who could take a ball to the end zone every touch. Bruce Arians, the Colts’ interim head coach and offensive coordinator, said there isn’t any doubt Johnson remains as dangerous as ever.
“That target is going to be on his back, and it’s really tough to shed when you have everyone hunting you up,” Arians said. “He looks like he’s still in great form.”
The Colts are struggling to stop the run, giving up an average 141.7 yards per game. Johnson is averaging 3.7 yards per carry with only two 100-yard games in seven games against Indianapolis, and Colts linebacker Dwight Freeney said Johnson always has been a challenge with what he called “Barry Sanders’ type of game-breaking ability.”
“He’ll have 10 runs that you stop him and then all of a sudden, all he needs is one and that one is big,” Freeney said. “It’s going to be important that guys collectively, on each and every play, stop him.”