Chris Johnson is used to running with a target on his back. Even so, Johnson — the Tennessee Titans’ star running back who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first five seasons ― often finds a way to get his yards.
But on Sunday, despite facing a Chiefs defense that had allowed the ninth-most rushing yards per game in the NFL, Johnson finished with only 17 yards in 10 carries, his lowest rushing output in over a year.
“I don’t think it was them ― I think it was us,” Johnson said after the Titans’ 26-17 loss to the Chiefs. “A lot of mistakes were made.”
As you might imagine, the Chiefs would beg to differ.
“Just up front, we had to establish a new line of scrimmage and I think we did a pretty good job of that today,” Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson said. “We were just attacking those guys, knocking them back in the backfield and making Chris Johnson stop his feet, try to make him redirect.”
The Chiefs showed their might during a crucial series in the second quarter, when they stonewalled the Titans on four consecutive plays at their 1-yard line. That included a pair of up-the-middle runs by former Chief Jackie Battle that were stopped out short of the goal line, the latter of which was led by defensive tackle Dontari Poe, who registered seven tackles and bordered on unblockable for most of the game.
On one hand, Titans coach Mike Munchak was surprised by Johnson’s overall lack of success on the ground, though the Titans managed to rush for 105 yards as a team, nearly 15 below their season average.
But on the other, he knew the Chiefs’ defense was better against the run than the statistics gave them credit for.
“We knew that people said, ‘Well, they gave up X amount of yards per carry,’” Munchak said. “A lot of that was draws at the end of games where it didn’t matter, so the stats weren’t really what was on tape.”
Don’t forget that the Chiefs gave up a season-high 264 rushing yards against a Philadelphia that runs a zone-read scheme that is difficult to prepare for. And they only had three days to prepare for that game. Take that one out of the equation, and the Chiefs are allowing 77.8 rushing yards per game, which would put them in the league’s upper echelon.
“Playing against Philly, everybody will get hurt against the run because of the style of offense they play,” Jackson said. “Because of how they attack the defense, it’s just hard to get real good defensive stats like your normal games. But we’ve been doing a pretty good job (outside of that). We’ve got to keep it up.”
Johnson did get one chance to showcase his world-class speed on Sunday. In the third quarter, he helped the Titans get back into the game when he caught a short dump-off from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and breezed through the open field for a 49-yard touchdown.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson accepted responsibility for the big play.
“Chris Johnson was just trying to block me, he wasn’t going out for a route,” Derrick Johnson said. “I just stayed on him a little bit, Fitzpatrick started running around and I just kind of left him and they made a good play. In that situation, I know next time, just stay with your guy until he crosses that line.”
It was the one time all day where Chris Johnson got free, and it wasn’t even a running play.
Even still, the Chiefs didn’t totally bottle up the Titans’ run game. Battle broke off a 37-yard run, and Fitzpatrick often used his legs to escape trouble, rushing for a team-high 50 yards in six carries.
That included a 9-yard touchdown run in which Fitzpatrick shook off linebacker Justin Houston and gave the Titans a 17-13 fourth-quarter lead.
“Fitzpatrick, he’s been known to be able to escape and use his feet throughout his whole career,” said safety Kendrick Lewis. “He got out a couple of times but we were able to withstand it — as long as it wasn’t Chris Johnson taking it the distance on us.”