Can the Detroit Lions Lock Down Titans RB Chris Johnson?

Melissa HeyboerFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2012

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 09:  Steven Jackson #39 of the St. Louis Rams tries to hurdle over the Detroit Lions defenders at Ford Field on September 9, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.  The Lions won 27-23  (Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images)
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Whether or not the Detroit Lions can stop Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson comes down to one very important question: Which Chris Johnson will actually show up?

Jim Schwartz’s former team is 0-2 entering Sunday’s game, and it could be partly because of the underperforming Johnson in the backfield. When asked about his woeful play this season, he's not entirely willing to take the blame.

Nevertheless, Johnson is quite a conundrum. We know how good he can be. He showed us that during his rookie and sophomore seasons when he ran for 1,228 and 2,006 yards, respectively.

Since then, Johnson has seen his numbers steadily decline. Last year, he rushed for just 1,047 yards on 262 carries and had just four touchdowns all season. And through the first two games of the 2012 season, Johnson has amassed just 21 yards on 19 carries. That’s an average of just 1.1 yards per carry.

If this is the Chris Johnson the Lions see on Sunday, I don’t see them having too many problems containing him. The Detroit Lions run defense has consistently been a problem. But they managed to hold the San Francisco 49ers Frank Gore to just 89 yards rushing last week.

Gore might not be as fierce a runner as he was a few years ago, but he's still highly productive. And with a run defense like the Lion’s, 89 yards should be considered a victory.

But Johnson’s struggles are no reason for Detroit to sit back on their heels. Even during a struggling season, he’s capable of big games and even bigger plays. And the Lions have to be ready for that.

When effective, Johnson can hurt you in a lot of ways. He’s obviously fast, but he can also break tackles. And for a Lions team who seems to have an affinity for not wrapping guys up, that could pose a problem if they let it. Johnson can also catch short passes out of the backfield and turn them into big runs.

So for Detroit, it’s going to be about how they start. If they can get to Johnson early, limit his positive yardage in the early quarters and on first and second downs, the Titans might have little choice but to put the team on the back of quarterback Jack Locker.

And that could be scary. After all, the air attack isn’t exactly Tennessee’s bread and butter.

The Titans have had to play catch up in the second half of the first two games of the season. As a result, they haven’t relied on Johnson to make plays in the third and fourth quarters. The Lions should take note.

Detroit is typically a second half team as well, but if they want to make sure Johnson sees limited touches in the second half, then they have to put a decent amount of points on the board early in the game.

If you stop the run and put the ball into Locker’s hands and force them into longer yardage scenarios, the Lions will be just fine.

With that said, relying on the Lions’ secondary isn’t always the best prescription for a win either.

But Locker is young and is generally more of a threat with his legs than his arm. That doesn’t mean the Lions should take his arm lightly, but you also don’t want to pressure Locker too much. He can scramble. And when he does, he’s quick enough that he could pick up decent yardage.

I think the secret for the Lions front seven on Sunday will simply be to make sure they are ready for anything. They don’t know which Johnson will make an appearance on Sunday, but they also can’t assume it will be the less productive one.