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Many problems have led to frustrating start for Titans' Johnson

  • By Jeff Darlington NFL.com
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Jim Brown/US Presswire
Despite Chris Johnson's paltry rushing totals, the Titans are off to a 2-1 start this season.


He was having one of those days, the type when a few little unrelated mistakes compound a problem into something much more frustrating. This time, however, it wasn't happening on the football field.

"Car ran out of gas right after my phone died," Titans running back Chris Johnson tweeted Thursday evening. "And to make it even worse, left (my) wallet (and) money home this (morning)."

For Johnson, the speedy threat with as much ability to break off a big run as anyone in the NFL, there might not be a better parallel to the start of his football season than Thursday's issues.

Chris Johnson's First Three Games
Year Carries Yards Avg TDs
2011 46 98 2.1 0
2010 75 301 4.0 4
2009 53 345 6.5 2
2008 50 275 5.5 0

A bunch of little problems are creating one annoying result: No place to go.

Three games deep, Johnson has rushed for an uncharacteristic 98 yards, placing him behind 36 other players on the league's list of rushing leaders. Shoot, it'll take him 13 more yards before he even surpasses Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne.

"Of course, it gets frustrating when you don't have any running game," Johnson said during a news conference at the team's facility Thursday. "But it's something you have to keep working at."

Fortunately for the Titans, who have still managed a 2-1 start despite limited production on the ground, the team's upcoming game against the Browns might be a prime opportunity to change all of this.

For starters, Johnson sounded Thursday as if he's starting to get his legs back after a contract holdout kept him from practicing until Sept. 2, one month after training camp started. That might be the most obvious step toward resuming his highlight-making ways.

"The first three weeks when I got here, I was getting over a lot of soreness and tightness," Johnson said. "So toward the end of practice, I wasn't able to run the gassers. (On Thursday), I was able to run them. I feel like I'm in football shape."

Given that Johnson's speed has been among the greatest components of his three previous seasons with 1,200 yards or more, that's a fine sign. Here's another one: The Browns' rushing defense ranks 29th in the league, giving up 128.7 yards per game.

The Titans at this point are still far more concerned with remedying their own rushing issues rather than worrying about the struggles of the opponent. And Johnson takes no solace in the struggles of other big-name running backs, like DeAngelo Williams or Frank Gore, around the league.

This is an internal battle, one that first-year head coach Mike Munchak is trying to solve without allowing Johnson to grow overly frustrated.

"Those numbers can change real quick," Munchak said. "There's no doubt defenses are concentrating on him, just because of that home run ability. But we just can't get frustrated, especially him. We need to stick to it.

"We're not going to stop doing what we know we're good at."

Despite only nine rushing attempts for Johnson in the first game and 13 in the most recent game, the Titans have made an effort to establish the run. But penalties -- two holding calls on the first three series against the Broncos -- have hindered that.

As a result, it has created an unfamiliar scene in Tennessee: The passing game has generated more than 300 yards in each of the past two games.

"We know (balance) is important, but normally we're on the other side of this," Munchak said. "This is rare territory for us. We know we have to be balanced to win, especially on the road."

With wide receiver Kenny Britt now out for the season with a torn ACL and MCL, the balance on offense could flip again in a hurry. And it'll be up to Johnson to make sure it happens.

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So how does it happen? How does Johnson, who signed a four-year, $53.5 million contract earlier this month, start earning those dollars? It all seems to circle back to the original analogy.

Most everyone in the Titans' organization contends the issues are everywhere, a bunch of small factors creating difficulty in the running game. It's the penalties (one of which negated what would have been Johnson's longest run of the season last week). It's the blocking. It's probably the impact of the holdout, too.

"There's no doubt (the holdout) hurt him, but that's just a small part," Munchak said. "Unfortunately, it's not easy to fix because it's not only one problem. It's a lot of little things. But a lot of times it takes one run."

Johnson is hoping that's the case. He admits he and his offensive line still need to "get on the same page," while also noting a few of his own hesitations have contributed to the lack of a big play -- or even a touchdown -- at this point.

But the running back isn't irresponsibly throwing around blame, nor is he upset about the limited opportunities he got in the first or third games. Despite some limited superficial frustration, he doesn't seem to be pressing yet.

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"If the running game isn't going, you've got to do what you've got to do to win," Johnson said. "I can't be selfish and go to the head coach or the offensive coordinator and be like, 'Keep running the ball even if we gained zero yards or one yard or negative one yard.'"

For now, while Johnson's fantasy owners might be increasingly frustrated by the lack of production from the star running back, the Titans are at least able to take much more solace in the overall results to this point.

After all, even if Johnson isn't producing up to his All-Pro ability, Tennessee is 2-1.

"It's not a 'me' thing -- it's a whole team thing," Johnson said. "I could see being upset if we were 0-3. But we're 2-1. Just imagine once the running game does get going."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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