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Johnson Willing -- and Able -- to Answer the Call on Kickoff Returns

Pressed into action in the second half against Buffalo, the veteran wide receiver produced Tennessee's top two returns of the season.

NASHVILLE – Somebody had to do it. It turned out that Marcus Johnson did it better than anyone else the Tennessee Titans have tried this season.

The veteran wide receiver was pressed into service as a kickoff return man for the second half of Monday’s 34-31 victory over the Buffalo Bills and produced the Titans’ longest two returns of the season. He only returned two.

“The thing that we told him at halftime is we just want a guy that’s going to go catch the ball and get upfield as quickly as possible and break an arm tackle,” special teams coach Craig Aukerman said Thursday. “Marcus was game for it. He was excited and ended up getting our two best returns.”

Johnson’s first try – after Buffalo kicked a field goal to open the second half – was a 21-yard return that set up Tennessee’s offense at its own 33. Twelve players later that unit crossed the goal line courtesy of a three-yard run by Derrick Henry.

Then in the final minute of the third quarter, Johnson went 31 yards on his second opportunity and gave the ball to the offense at the 35. Nine plays later, the Titans kicked a field goal.

Among Tennessee’s 11 possessions on the night, those were the only two that started beyond the 30-yard line.

“It’s not too much dancing around,” Johnson said. “You want to make one cut and go as best as you can. And just trust in the guys in front of me (and) the holes they open up. I think a lot of it is speed and vision.”

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Chester Rogers, Cameron Batson and Jeremy McNichols all served as kickoff returner at times during the first five and a half games. It was Batson’s job against the Bills, and he had a 20-yard return (at the time, the Titans’ longest of the season) earlier in the contest before he sustained a season-ending knee injury late in the first half. By that time, Rogers and McNichols already were out with injury issues of their own.

Enter Johnson. In an NFL career that started in 2016, he had returned two kickoffs before Monday night. His longest had been 23 yards for Indianapolis in 2018.

“Yeah, I thought he did really well,” Aukrerman said. “We had our best two returns when he went back there. … So, we feel pretty good about him going in there and helping us out.”

There is no word on whether Johnson will continue in that role. Rogers and McNichols remain options going forward, but Rogers has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against Kansas City and McNichols is questionable due to injuries.

Second-year running back Darrynton Evans, the presumed kickoff return man throughout the offseason, has spent all of the regular season on injured reserve but is in his third week since he was designated to return to practice, which makes it possible that he will be added to the active roster prior to the contest.

If coaches ask him to do it again, though, Johnson’s answer likely will be the same as the last time.

“(Aukerman) came up to me like,’ You ever return kicks?’” Johnson said. “I was like, ‘Yeah. I’m ready to go. I’m good.’ So, he let me go out there and make a couple plays.

“I just want to build on that.”