NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With the game on the line in overtime and 66 NFL seasons of experienced players on offense, the Tennessee Titans hedged their bets on their lone rookie starter.
Tailback Chris Johnson touched the ball six times as Tennessee took nine plays to drive 55 yards to set up the winning field goal against Green Bay on Sunday.
His final and brief career-high 24th carry, a 3-yard sweep, brought his combined yardage total to 161, almost half of Tennessee's output (347) on the day. Johnson also scored his team's only touchdown, a 3-yard burst off right tackle in the second quarter.
"I know he was a darkhorse draft pick but he's stepped in and done everything we've asked him to do," Tennessee center Kevin Mawae said. "The kid is a special player, a special talent, and he's done a great job for us."
A smooth transition
With 715 rushing yards, Johnson is the AFC's leading rusher and fourth overall in the NFL. He has more than a football-field lead in rushing yards on mainstays like LaDainian Tomlinson (551), Jamal Lewis (533) and Thomas Jones (601). He also has 164 receiving yards (24 receptions) and six touchdowns, five of them on the ground.
To say that Johnson has been a surprise is a spot-on assessment.
When the Titans selected him out of East Carolina with the 24th overall pick in April, the choice was met with skepticism -- to say the least. The team that was deprived of wide receivers and down a suspended/traded cornerback (Adam Jones) took a situational running back?
This after taking Chris Henry and LenDale White in the second round of the previous two drafts, respectively.
"A lot of people didn't like the pick," safety Chris Hope said, "especially with him coming from a smaller school."
Then people got a taste of what many stopwatches could barely clock -- speed. Blinding speed.
At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, Johnson ran the 40-yard dash in 4.24 seconds ( watch it here). That's about as long as it took to type this sentence (before spell checking and fixing the typos). In offseason workouts and in training camp, he cruised just as fast, even when moving in serpentine.
Still, football players being football players, speed didn't equate to being able to tote the rock when it came to playing football. How tough was he? Johnson proved himself to his teammates and coaches quickly in training camp. He quickly moved ahead of the burly White, now a highly effective, change-of-pace back, to open the season as the starting tailback.
Rookies on a roll
Led by Chris Johnson, the 2008 draft class of rushers is off to quick start. The top five rookie rushing yardage leaders after Johnson:
Johnson is proving that he's not only the league's top rookie running back, but one of its best, regardless of tenure. Washington's Clinton Portis, Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Atlanta's Michael Turner are the only running backs with more rushing yards.
"He's probably the first football player I've played with who is extremely fast and who can really play the game," Hope said. "You have guys that are fast but are not as good with the (football) skills. Chris is explosive. He has the vision, knowledge of the game and he rarely fumbles -- and he packs a punch when he delivers a blow."
Johnson has a little Warrick Dunn in him, the way he can prevent taking a direct shot that tends not to favor the well-being of someone his stature. Like Jerious Norwood, he can take a pitch, bounce it outside, make a tackler miss and leave defenders re-adjusting pursuit angles to catch him downfield. He also favors Emmitt Smith when it comes to getting where he needs to go. If someone is in his way, he's going to lower the boom to get there. His core strength, leverage and the timing of his impact allow him to deliver effective blows that typically favor him and the Titans.
To emphasize the point, the five times Johnson carried the ball on Tennessee's final drive against Green Bay went like this: Around right end for 4 yards; behind right guard for 14 yards; off left tackle for 3; up the middle for 5; around left end for 3 more. He also had a 16-yard reception.
That's three things but he he's still a rookie, so forgive him.
His ability to translate his intentions into production as well as limiting mistakes has earned Johnson a trust found in few rookies. That's why offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger tabbed Johnson to close out the final offensive drive against the Packers.
"I have expectations but I wasn't going to come in here or even say right now that I am going to do this or do that," Johnson said. "I just expect to make plays. I am going to play my hardest every play and play my heart out."
That's where he's earned most of his credibility. Not only does he run like each carry might be his last, he has taken to keeping quarterback Kerry Collins upright by being astute at blitz pickups. Johnson has been adept at finding free-roaming pass rushers and keeping them off of Collins. To him, it's the least he can do to aid a quarterback and offensive line that have done what they can to ensure his success.
"We all feed off each other. That's why things are working around here," Johnson said. "If LenDale makes a good run, I feed off that and try to get a good run. If I get a good run, LenDale feeds off that. When we both get good runs, the offensive line gets jacked up because they know they're doing their jobs. It's just what we do."