Breaking Down the Resurgence of Chris Johnson as an Elite NFL RB

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Breaking Down the Resurgence of Chris Johnson as an Elite NFL RB

Don't look now, but Chris Johnson is averaging 5.1 yards per carry and is Top Five in total rushing yards in the NFL.

It was only weeks ago when the beleaguered Titans' franchise running back had more carries than yards and hadn't scored a touchdown in a game. As a matter of fact, Johnson went scoreless in the first six weeks of the season. Yet, here he is in week 10 with four touchdowns thus far, 862 rushing yards and two 80 yard runs in the last four weeks. The light switch has finally turned on for Johnson. The question is: why?

In late September, I chronicled Chris Johnson's struggles early in the season and my early season conclusions pointed the finger at more than just the former ECU product:

"There’s a few reasons for Johnson’s struggles, starting with the man himself. He has left yards on the field on occasion because he’s either not seeing them, not beating the tackler, or he’s far too interested in bouncing it to the outside where he believes he can outrun the entire defense and Usain Bolt. But he’s not solely to blame; the Titans’ offensive line shares some blame, and so do the damn good run defenses he’s faced."

Johnson simply looked disinterested in playing at times and had a strong propensity to bounce runs to the outside. That behavior was indicative of how he either didn't want bodily blows from defenders (the kind that typically come in between the tackles) or how he was simply looking for the big play all the time.

Regardless, it was neither a proper nor a realistic approach to running the ball. As a result, he was missing far too many alleys that, ironically, would have sprung him into the open field for a big play.

However, the lightning-quick Johnson wasn't solely to blame. As it reads above, the offensive line wasn't quite doing their job, either. They were not establishing a new line of scrimmage all that often and that's a must when running the football. They also weren't sealing off their blocks to help create a running lane, which goes back to last season when Johnson had a paltry (by his standards) and career low of 1,047 rushing yards.

A snapshot of 2011 season's poor blocking.

But much has changed since then, especially since the infancy weeks of this season. Chris Johnson is looking like the velvet running back that we once knew: big gainers, hitting the creases inside of the formation, filling and finding the natural alleys created on the outsides and most of all, no longer dancing as much.

This was evident this past weekend against the Miami Dolphins, who he racked up 126-yards against, as well as in Week 9 against the Chicago Bears, whose vaunted defense is always a daunting task; Johnson turned in a 141-yard performance, to the tune of 8.8 yards per carry, against the 5th best run defense. Oh, and he scored on one of his patented long gainers.

There was 80-yards to go for the Titans' offense when they received the ball at their own 20-yard line. They faced an eight man box from the Bears, who cohesively formed a 4-4 front against the Titans' modified T-formation that was once popular in the single-wing days of football.

Eight man fronts are generally the worst for a running back, due to the additional defenders in the box, but as legendary Dutch soccer star Johan Cruijff once said, "Every disadvantage has its advantage." The advantage was that if Johnson broke into the second level, no one was going to get him regardless of the angle or technique used.

And I mean no one.

When quarterback Matt Hasselbeck finally put the ball into play, he turned around and handed it off to Johnson, who immediately, but patiently, ran right. He was following his lead blocker, tight end Taylor Thompson, who would be springing him into the second level with a block on undisciplined Bears' safety Chris Conte, who was expecting Johnson to stretch the run to the outside like he had done in earlier weeks. 

Typically, when a running back gets into the open field, fear starts to set in for defenders. The defender's actions usually suggest the words, "If I don't make this tackle, I am toast." But when Johnson gets into the open field, it is much different because it's sheer intimidation for defenders.

Instead of thinking, "If I don't make this tackle, I am toast," they think, "Oh, he's eating up ground so fast!", because of how quickly he blades through the grass. This thought process leads to the defender trying to take the quickest and narrowest angle possible, in order to stop him from picking up additional real estate and, ultimately, a poor angle and missed tackle.

Safety Major Wright quickly found that out.

Of Chris Johnson's 862 yards through ten weeks of the NFL season, 652 have come in the last five weeks at a rate of 6.9 yards per carry.

What's perhaps most interesting about his season totals thus far is that of the five running backs leading the NFL in rushing yards, he has the least amount of carries attributed to his name. Only Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie running back Doug Martin is in the 170-range with Johnson, checking in with 173, but everyone else has 195 carries or more.

And much of Chris Johnson's resurgence has to do with his improved decision making. He is seeing the alleys better and is not hesitating to attack downhill, opposed to earlier this season, where he was not sure of what he was seeing and choosing to go outside of the tackle box.

Further, the other noted improvement in his success is the blocking in front of him. The offensive line and tight ends have done a much better job of sealing their blocks to spring Johnson into the open field as witnessed on the 80-yard touchdown run vs. the Chicago Bears.

Chris Johnson is officially back.

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