Very quietly, last season Titans running back Chris Johnson had a bounce-back season. It's easy to overlook Johnson's 1,243-yard season when his team finished 6-10, but adjustments were made in the offseason to make Tennessee's run game better and the Falcons will see it first-hand on Saturday night when they travel to Nashville to move last week's strong performance on defense against the run a week forward.
Last week against the Ravens, the Falcons first-team defense held Baltimore starting Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice to just 10 yards on eight carries, In the first half, they held Baltimore to 13 yards rushing and allowed 61 total for the game. That's a strong and encouraging effort for a team that finished 21st in the league last year against the run, allowing 123 yards per game on the ground.
In addition to getting to the passer more this year, stopping the run is one of the primary objectives for this year's defense. What they did against the Ravens was a good start and they hope to continue that theme in a game plan week against the Titans and on into the season.
"That's one of the things we're going to pride ourselves on, being a defense that goes out and stops the run," middle linebacker Akeem Dent said. "You can make a team one-dimensional and if they can't run on you then that's one less thing you have to worry about. We still have things to work on but each week we have to go out and prepare to play the way we want to play."
The Titans are operating with a young quarterback in Jake Locker and a strong running game should help them cover up some of his growing pains. In the offseason they added two high-profile guards that will likely improve the ease with which Johnson can find his lanes. Andy Levitre was added in free agency and the Titans drafted Chance Warmack with the 10th overall pick in this year's draft.
Both linemen are physical, bruising guards that can move people in the run game and the work they'll get in with Johnson should be a good test for the Falcons' goal to defend the run better this season. Head coach Mike Smith thinks he's one of the faster backs in the league and speed is something you can't teach or reproduce in practice situations. The game action against him will be priceless.
"I think it's great to play against Chris Johnson," Smith said. "Chris is very fast. We've not faced a runner that has his speed, so it's going to be a good test for us. It's going to be important for us in terms of our defensive linemen and our secondary guys playing with good leverage because Chris is the kind of guy that, he may start to the right and the ball may come all the way back outside the defensive end on the left. He's got great speed. He's got great vision. He's more of an elusive-style runner and not necessarily a north and south runner."
While Johnson is not a north and south back who will plow over you, he's always been a back that can follow blocks in the open field and cut here and there to make people miss, like Smith explained. Johnson's time in the league has come with growth and while he eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards in 2009 using mainly just his speed, he's now a much more intelligent and dangerous runner.
Evidence of the new dimension of Johnson was on display in the Titans' first preseason game against the Redskins. In one of his two carries, he raced 58 yards for a touchdown before the Redskins could blink. It was vintage Johnson except he ran with patience and let the play develop. He followed the flow of his line to the right before cutting back to the left and racing up the middle of the field. He juked one defender at the second level to get around him and then he was gone.
Dent said though Johnson isn't talked about like he once was, he's still one of the best and those holes the Titans O-line opens up are easy for Johnson to quickly scat through.
"He's always been a talented guy," Dent said. "Right now he's still one of those top-tier guys. He's a real athletic guy with blazing speed. He has the ability to find holes and seams in the defense. He's still one of the good running backs out there."
So how do you stop Johnson? For starters, you have to be a sure tackler, something the Falcons have worked on throughout the preseason, even though they can't physically tackle in practice. More important than tackling, especially against a burner like Johnson, is proper angles of pursuit.
"We focus on (tackling) when we can," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "I think the path to the ball is the biggest thing. That's the one thing with tackling, you've got to take the right path to the ball in order to make the tackle. That's one thing we've focused on throughout camp is having the proper leverage."
Gone are the days when Johnson is looking for lanes on the outside. In past years if he could get to the edge, there was a good chance he could take it to the house as he outran everyone. Now Johnson can keep it inside, use the good blocking in front of him and a few moves to make some people miss before turning on the speed. That's a dangerous combination.
Weatherspoon said discipline on the outside has to be present to keep players like Johnson from getting there. The defensive leader added that everyone has to trust each other to be where they need to be to keep the flow in the middle of the field. The last time the Falcons faced the Titans was in 2011 and they executed a near-flawless defense of the running back. They allowed Johnson 13 yards on 12 carries in a 23-17 win.