In an NFL season flush with developments that defy easy explanation and preconceptions that haven't held up, here's one more you may not have noticed: Slowing down the Tennessee Titans offense no longer means slowing down 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson.
The 5-2 Titans have quietly vaulted into first place in the AFC South on the strength of their three-game winning streak, and yet Johnson is averaging 1.5 yards less per carry this season compared to 2009 (4.1 to 5.6) and is well off his 125-yard per game rushing pace of last season.
Johnson isn't exactly a drag on the Tennessee offense, mind you. His 662 yards still ranks third among NFL rushers and puts him on pace for a 1,513-yard season. But even when defenses have focused like a laser on taking him away, the Titans have stayed productive. You might be surprised to learn that:
• Tennessee ranks second in the NFL in points per game, averaging 28.4, trailing only New England's 29.5. With 199 points, the Titans have the highest points-for column in the league standings (they've played seven games to the Patriots' six games and 177 points for).
• The Titans have scored at least 30 points in a league-best four of their seven games this season, and had 29 points in another game. During its current three-game winning streak, Tennessee has scored 34, 30 and 37 points, with those 101 points being the third-most in the NFL over that span.
• Despite ranking just 29th in passing yardage (170.9 per game), the Titans have been very efficient throwing the ball. Both Vince Young (98.9) and Kerry Collins (90.9) have passer ratings north of 90.0, making Tennessee the only team to claim that distinction with two different quarterbacks.
"We've got a lot of offensive weapons and we can actually throw the ball,'' Johnson said, squeezing in a post-practice phone interview Wednesday, while preparing for Sunday's game in San Diego. "People didn't really know that about us. But you can't just put eight people in the box and try to stop our running game now, because we can hurt you other ways.''
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The Titans' 37-19 come-from-behind victory over visiting Philadelphia last Sunday was the best example so far of Tennessee's newfound versatility on offense. Johnson was held to just 66 yards on 24 carries, with a long gain of 12 yards and a 2.8-yard average. It was the third time already this season that Johnson averaged less than 3.0 per carry, something he never did even once last year, when he rushed for an NFL-leading 2,006 yards and finished the season with 11 consecutive games of 100 yards or more.
No matter. The Titans still turned a 19-10, early fourth-quarter deficit into an 18-point win on the strength of second-year receiver Kenny Britt's breakout performance that keyed a 27-point fourth-quarter explosion. Britt and Collins teamed up for three touchdown passes (26, 80 and 16 yards), and Britt, 22, became the youngest player in 30 years to record a 200-yard receiving game, catching seven passes for 225 yards and those three scores. Britt had four catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone, despite not entering the game until midway through the second quarter as a team-imposed penalty for him being involved in a Friday morning fight at a nightclub.
"It was a breakthrough game for [Britt], and it let teams around the league know we can do more than just run the ball,'' said Johnson, who has logged four 100-yard rushing games this season, scoring all seven of his touchdowns in those Titans victories. "But it feels like I've been earning every yard I get this year. If they want to stop me and we're still winning, it's OK by me. I'm still [No. 3] in the league in rushing. It seems like a lot of defenses would rather stop me than get a victory. Which is fine with me.''
The Titans' win against the Eagles was the first time in the past two seasons they've won a game without Johnson rushing for at least 100 yards. Tennessee had not managed that since Week 16 of his 2008 rookie season. But opposing defenses will now at least have to consider a different blueprint for facing the Titans, and leaving Britt in single coverage while putting eight men in the box to stop Johnson might not be the automatic choice.
"We'll have to do it a couple games in a row to let people know we can really do that, but if we can, they're going to have to start playing us more fairly,'' Johnson said. "If we continue to throw the ball like we did, eventually they're going to have to change and play us more straight up. They keep just trying to stop one dimension of our game.''
As you might have heard, Johnson boldly set a goal of rushing for a mere 2,500 yards this season, which would shatter the NFL single-season record of 2,105, set by the Rams' Eric Dickerson in 1984. He's almost 1,000 yards off a 2,500-yard pace through seven games, and his impact in the Titans passing game is noticeably down as well. His 17 catches have produced just 66 yards (3.9 average), well below last year's 50-catch, 503-yard, 10.1 average.
So far, there has been no sign of frustration from Johnson, said Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger.
"He's pretty good about it,'' Heimerdinger said. "I haven't heard him complain. I said something to him today about it, and he said, 'I still carried it 24 times [against Philadelphia]. It's not like you're not giving it to me.' And that's true. It's not like we're cheating him. I just think people have learned to take much better angles on him when he gets into the secondary, and keep pursuing on the backside. And at times, we have to do a better job of finishing our blocks for him. He popped one last week, but we didn't block downfield and give him the chance to get to the second level. It would have gone for 60 instead of 12 if we had.''
Johnson's signature long runs have been fewer and far between this season. He had a 76-yard touchdown burst in Tennessee's Week 1 win at home against Oakland, but an 85-yarder was called back by penalty against Pittsburgh in Week 2, and his next longest rushes of the year have been a pair of 42-yard, non-scoring runs. It's partly a testament to the bracketing and attention he receives from every defense, a natural outgrowth of him having more than 2,500 combined yards from scrimmage last season.
"The 80-yard runs aren't there right now and people say his average is down,'' Heimerdinger said. "Well, last year he also never carried in short yardage or goal line. We had LenDale White. Now we're giving (Johnson) the ball in short-yardage situations. He had two one-yard touchdowns against Dallas (in Week 5). Those don't help your average, but they help the team.''
With the Titans one-half game up on the second-place Colts and Texans (both 4-2), who play each other Monday night in Indy, a win over the reeling Chargers (2-5) on Sunday would send Tennessee into its bye week at 6-2, in sole possession of the division's top spot at midseason. It would also make the Titans a lofty 14-4 since stumbling to that surprising 0-6 start last year.
Tennessee hopes to get Young back into the lineup this week after the quarterback missed most of the past two games with knee and ankle sprains. He's had a solid connection with Britt as well this season, with the Titans' 2009 first-round pick totaling seven touchdowns already on just 23 receptions, good for 434 yards, an 18.9-yard average catch, and a five-game scoring streak.
Defenses facing Tennessee now have to stop more than just the NFL's most electrifying runner.
"We're still seeing the same eight-man fronts because of Chris, but with Kenny getting off the other day against the Eagles, we were forcing them out of it some,'' Heimerdinger said. "But both Vince and Kerry have been making pretty good decisions the past three weeks. We're getting some points and guys are throwing and catching, and making plays for us.
"One game doesn't necessarily make defenses play you differently. But I think they'll be more aware of [Britt] now. It doesn't hurt to get guys rolling his way in coverage. You might see more of that now. The more guys we have like that, the better chance we have of getting it where Chris can go do something.''
In a season of surprising discoveries, another new twist has surfaced in Tennessee: No longer can you stop Chris Johnson and assume you've stopped the Titans offense. There's more than one impact play-maker in their lineup this year, and that might be the Titans' best development of all.