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Johnson's performance confirms Titans' predictions

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans watched Chris Johnson take the ball and break loose up the middle during the first two weeks of training camp, wondering if those would have been touchdowns in a game.

Now they've got an answer: A resounding YES.

The rookie running back from East Carolina, the 24th pick overall, took a handoff and went straight up the middle Saturday night for a 66-yard touchdown run. The player with the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine split two Rams safeties, including Eric Bassey who was timed at 4.36 seconds in the 40 himself at his own Pro Day.

That was only one play in the Titans' 34-13 exhibition opening win over St. Louis, but nice confirmation for Tennessee after all the critics who questioned the team's decision to draft a running back in the first round instead of a receiver to help Vince Young. Now, the Titans have some early confirmation that their choice has a good chance to pay off quickly.

"We found out," coach Jeff Fisher said Sunday. "We can assume a couple of those plays over the last couple of weeks would've been touchdowns.

Johnson dazzled the Titans not only with his 4.24-seconds speed at the combine but with his 6,993 all-purpose yards in college. He finished with 77 yards on six carries and caught a pass for 13 yards, showing the hands the Titans also intend to use to tap into his speed as a threat to score.

"When he gets the ball in his hands in the open field, I think there's always a chance," Fisher said.

It was a nice change for a Tennessee offense that ranked fifth in the NFL last year in rushing but didn't have a run longer than 42 yards, and that was in the opener at Jacksonville. The Titans had two runs longer than that against the Rams and finished with an impressive 340 yards rushing against a St. Louis team struggling to rebuild from a 3-13 season.

LenDale White, who started all last season, started the game and ran for 33 yards on six carries. Johnson looked so good that Fisher said there was a chance Johnson could be the first running back on the field Friday against Oakland.

But Fisher stopped to clarify how the Titans define the starter at running back.

"We're going to use a number of running backs, and the starter as far as I'm concerned will be the guy who plays the first play in the game not because one has earned the privilege to start over another. It will be based on what we decide to do as an offensive staff to start the game," Fisher said.

"Obviously, we're going to have two players and as I look at it, it's going to be LenDale and it's going to be Chris. We're going to change them out throughout the game and back them up."

The Titans don't need to name a specific starter, not when Johnson gives Fisher and his staff their first speed and power combination at running back in his tenure going into his 14th full season. Skip Hicks gave the Titans a little speed boost in 2001, then Chris Brown had the ability to break loose for long runs but struggled with injuries.

White showed Tennessee he could play hurt last year with torn cartilage in his left knee and still ran for 1,110 yards. But Johnson gives the Titans the chance to hurt defenses, which they can't wait to use.

"We're working to try to create a situation offensively where we get to raise the stress factors on defense," Fisher said. "You have to put players in position to create mismatches. That's what we're working for."

The Titans greeted Johnson on the sideline after his touchdown, complementing his run. They see him as a key piece in their bid to go deeper in the playoffs after going 10-6 but losing to San Diego in the wild-card round.

"I just wanted to come in here and see how well I could do in my first NFL game and just have a good game and let the whole organization know that the Titans didn't make a mistake on me making me a first-round pick," Johnson said after the game.

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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