Titans’ big-play running back Chris Johnson has Bears’ attention
BY MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org November 1, 2012 9:30PM
Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) runs for a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills during the first half of an NFL football game in Orchard Park, N.Y., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)
Updated: December 3, 2012 6:49AM
The Titans’ Chris Johnson isn’t the same running back he was when he became the sixth player in NFL history to break the 2,000-yard barrier with 2,006 yards in 2009. But don’t let those 14-carry, 24-yard games fool you. He still can be, if you give him the chance.
‘‘Chris Johnson is a home-run hitter,’’ Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said.
‘‘He’s lightning,’’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said.
‘‘He’s explosive,’’ middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. ‘‘Whenever he gets the ball, he can go the distance.’’
Johnson has been hit-or-miss since holding out for a four-year, $53 million contract ($30 million guaranteed) last September. He has had seven games of 99 yards or more since then — six of them have come against teams ranked in the bottom eight in the NFL in rushing defense. Against everybody else, he’s averaging 37 yards a game and 2.7 yards per carry.
The 5-11, 191-pound Johnson still has the Olympic-caliber burst that makes him so dangerous. His 83-yard touchdown against the Bills on Oct. 21 was an NFL-record fourth touchdown run of 80 or more yards.
‘‘Any time he gets some daylight he’s a threat to score,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘If he gets to our second level untouched, it’s going to be tough to get him.’’
That’s an obvious key to containing Johnson that should be within the reach of the Bears’ defense, which is ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards allowed (77.9 per game) and eighth in yards per carry (3.8).
Johnson rushed for 195 yards on 18 carries against the 32nd-ranked Bills. He gained 99 yards on 21 carries against the 27th-ranked Colts last week. He rushed for 141 yards on 25 carries against the fourth-ranked Texans — though 76 came in the second half after the Titans fell behind 21-7 in a 38-14 loss.
So while the Bears respect Johnson’s immense ability, they will defend him like they do anybody else. When Johnson faced the Bears as a rookie in 2008, he came in averaging 4.9 yards per carry. The Bears held him to eight yards on 14 carries, including five for negative yardage, in a 21-14 Titans victory at Soldier Field.
‘‘We just have to get in our gaps and run to the football like we always do,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘He’s a good running back. If there’s a hole, he’s going to find it and hit it fast. We have to ... get into the backfield and make him change directions so we can get more guys to the football.’’
And there’s one more element that makes it work.
‘‘Gap control is essential, but there’s going to be a free hitter that has to tackle,’’ Marinelli said. ‘‘We usually funnel the ball to a certain area, and guys have to make tackles in space. That’s tough because he can make you miss. And if we’re not hustling, it can be a big play.’’