Every week, we’ll take a look at a player or team whose bad performance did the most to raise the stress level of their coach.
The Titans were a nice little surprise story to start the NFL season -- emphasis on the word "were."
Following an encouraging 3-1 start, Tennessee has been hammered in its last two outings. The latest and more damaging defeat came Sunday, when the Titans took a 41-7 beating at home, courtesy of the Houston Texans. With that, the Titans find themselves looking up at Houston in the AFC South.
At the heart of the Titans' problems is Chris Johnson and a still-struggling run game.
Johnson had just 18 yards on 10 carries Sunday and was booed, at times, by his home fans. His backup, Javon Ringer, bested him with 31 yards rushing on just three attempts.
Tennessee sits dead last in the league in rushing yards per game at 64.3, a whopping 16 yards behind the nearest competitor. Johnson, who held out through all of camp before signing a $53 million contract extension, has put up just 44.6 yards per game and has 53 yards rushing or less in five of six outings.
Still, he insisted after Sunday's loss that he's not the problem:
“Basically, if you are watching the game and you really can’t tell what is going on with the run game then I would say you really don’t know football,’’ Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say I am the issue. I am very confident I have been doing the things … I do.”
Johnson received some backing on that statement from fullback Ahmard Hall, among others, who said Tennessee's blocking has been subpar.
But whether Johnson wants to see it or not, this is an offense-wide problem -- starting with him. We already took an in-depth look at Johnson's failures to find running room after Week 3. The conclusion then was that a mix of predictable play calling, poor blocking and Johnson not seeing openings were all combining to stunt the rushing attack.
Four games later, the same problems are still there.
The picture below is from a 1st-and-10 Tennessee had in the second quarter, at its own 40. The Titans lined up in an offset I-formation with a tight end on the right side of the line. It was a run-heavy look and they handed off to Johnson.
The blocking fell apart before Johnson could get to the line of scrimmage -- he was hit in the backfield by J.J. Watt, then fought forward for two yards.
But the problem:
The orange line is where Johnson was headed -- and where he was met by Watt. The yellow line is the massive, wide-open cutback lane that Johnson absolutely missed. The Texans have seven defenders in that picture, including all four linebackers pushing upfield. Had Johnson bounced to his right and split that gap, he would have had all sorts of room in front of him.
Here's what Ringer had to say after the game:
“People in the stands look at C.J. and they think, ‘OK, outrun this guy, break tackles.’ But you can’t if there’s no room there,” he said. “I am not trying to deliberately point the finger at anyone, but we need to work better as a team.”
The blocking point is well taken, but when you're two months removed from being handed a gigantic new contract and are the focal point of your team's offense, you have to -- have to -- make some things happen. Johnson's not even coming close.
“[Johnson] is one of those guys who is a home run hitter. If you hit him early, I think it kind of deters him a little bit,” Cushing said.
Whatever the reasons behind Johnson's individual failures, they keep adding up.
On this 1st-and-10 pitch, Johnson found himself one-on-one with Conner Barwin, who read the play nicely and stayed at home. Barwin slowed Johnson up and made the tackle after a 3-yard gain.
But this is precisely the type of play that Johnson needs to make more of. Barwin is a talented and athletic linebacker, so expecting Johnson to simply run around him is asking too much. Beyond Barwin, though, is an absolute wall of Titans blockers, with the Houston defense totally sealed off. If Johnson could have made Barwin miss, the 3-yard run easily could have turned into 15-20 yards or more.
Right now, the Titans' run game is doing the bare minimum, from the top down. Blame the vanilla play calling, if you want -- consistent run plays in run downs from run formations won't leave the defense guessing much. And definitely give the blocking a slap on the wrists.
Still, as much as he'd like to be, Johnson is not free and clear here. Part of why Tennessee paid him like it did is because he's supposed to be in the elite running back class, which means making things happen outside of what an average back could do. That isn't the case so far this season. Johnson is taking what the blocking and the defense give him, and no more. For Tennessee to turn this thing around and contend in the AFC South, Johnson has to step his game way up.