How Chris Johnson Can Break the 2,000-Yard Barrier Again
Four years removed from his first 2,000-yard season, and with a rebuilt offensive line in front of him, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is once again talking about that benchmark number for his position.
While appearing on the "Jim Rome Show", Johnson said he thinks another 2,000-yard season is possible.
“I know I have another 2,000 yard season in me,” Johnson told Rome. “I would love to get 2,000 yards again, but I haven’t been to the playoffs since my rookie year, I want to get back there.”
Johnson also told Rome he was pleased with the additions of guards Andy Levitre (free agency) and Chance Warmack (NFL draft) to the Titans offensive line this offseason.
“I was like ‘Thank God’,” Johnson said. “[It showed] they’re trying to put somebody in front of me and opening some more holes for me.”
Johnson has long been confident in his own words. But is another 2,000-yard season really in the cards for the Titans running back, even with the additions of Levitre and Warmack?
Johnson has already reached the milestone once in his five-year NFL career, and he's not even the last running back to do it—Adrian Peterson hit 2,000 yards less than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery in 2012. Completely ruling out the possibility for Johnson hitting the benchmark would be unfair.
However, plotting out a blueprint for Johnson getting there is easier said than done.
If Johnson is to reach 2,000 yards again in 2013, here's a five-step program for how he could do it.
First, let's be clear: playing in 16 games next season is not a guarantee of Johnson hitting 2,000 yards. But not getting in a full allotment of appearances because of injury? Well, that would all but doom Johnson's chances.
Keep in mind, only one running back in the history of the NFL has rushed for over 2,000 yards without a full 16 games. Former Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson accomplished the feat with just 14 games—a fact that so frequently gets overlooked when discussing the greatest running back seasons of all-time.
The six other rushers who hit 2,000—including Johnson in 2009—all played at least 16 games.
Luckily for Johnson, injury hasn't been much of a problem during his five NFL seasons. He's missed just one game since being drafted in 2008, and it came during his rookie season. For the past four seasons, he's played in all 16 games.
Just as a precursor to his quest of 2,000 yards, Johnson has to make sure he turns that streak into five-straight seasons in 2013.
Reestablish Dominance on the Perimeter
With the injury facts out of the way, the focus of this blueprint can now shift towards on-the-field adjustments.
Quite possibly the biggest aspect Johnson (and the entire Titans offense) needs to improve on next season is the lack of dominance in the perimeter running game.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson ran outside the offensive tackles 114 times for just 287 yards (2.5 yards/carry) last season. His worst total came to the outside of the strong side (off right tackle), where Johnson carried 29 times for only 11 yards (0.4 yards/carry).
If Johnson is to come close to approaching 2,000 yards in 2013, he'll need to revert back to the player who was the most deadly outside runner in the game in 2009.
That season, Johnson received 176 carries to the perimeter of the offensive line, per PFF. Those touches equaled a whopping 1,239 yards (7.0 yards/carry), or over half his total yards on the season. Only seven running backs beat that total over all their carries that season.
Johnson was especially deadly running off the shoulder of the right tackle, where he gained an NFL high 610 yards on just 58 carries, including 309 yards after contact.
The Titans have made big improvements to the interior of their offensive line this offseason, namely adding Levitre and Warmack at guard. But it's clear that Tennessee needs to be much better at running to the perimeter for Johnson to be at his most effective in 2013.
That improvement can come in a variety of ways—better play-calling, improved play from right tackle David Stewart and Johnson himself (he broke 25 tackles on the outside in 2009)—but it must happen for 2,000 yards to be in play.
And one quick side note on the Titans 2012 rushing numbers: Johnson actually averaged almost six yards a carry on runs between the tackles last season (161 attempts for 959 yards). Whether this is because the Titans were actually much better running inside than most believed, or Johnson sullied the numbers by frequently bouncing poor interior runs to the outside, is up for debate.
Break the Big Runs
While every 2,000-yard rusher needs to pound out the occasional 2- and 3-yard runs, it's the big plays that lay the foundation for a milestone season.
Both Johnson and Peterson have illustrated why in recent years.
During Johnson's 2000-yard season in 2009, he produced 22 runs over 20 yards—10 more than the next running back that season. Seven of the 22 were over 40 yards, also an NFL high.
Johnson simply hasn't been able to replicate those kind of explosive numbers since. Over the last three seasons, he has just 32 runs over 20 yards and eight over 40. While he is still near the top of the NFL in both categories over that time span, the per-year totals aren't enough for Johnson to put together a 2,000-yard season.
Consider that Johnson's 22 runs over 20 yards produced over a quarter of his total rushing yards in 2009. He'll need a similar ratio in 2013 to accomplish the feat.
Peterson would know.
During his 2,000-yard 2012 season, Peterson broke off 27 runs over 20 yards and eight over 40. Those plays accounted for over a third of his 2,097 yards a year ago.
A smaller running back with sub 4.3-speed, Johnson needs to reestablish himself as the NFL's premier home run hitter. Any other outcome in 2013—especially one where Johnson doesn't improve significantly on his big-play numbers—and he'll fall short of 2,000 yards.
Bump up Attempts, Average—and Significantly
Here's where the plan might get tricky for Johnson and the Titans.
To get to 2,000 yards, running backs need to see a significant amount of total carries. In 2009, Johnson received 358, which is right about on par with the rest of his milestone brethren. In the seven total 2,000-yard seasons, the running backs averaged a total of 362 carries.
In 2013, can Johnson get the right amount of carries to reach 2,000 yards?
In the three years since 2009, Johnson's highest amount of carries in one season has been 316—which came in 2010. Over the last two seasons, he's averaged well below 300 (269).
He's going to need a lot more touches to get to his goal, and that might be tricky with Shonn Greene now on board. The Titans are likely going to use Greene—a 1,000-yard rusher with the New York Jets in 2012—in specific situations, including short-yardage and on the goal line.
While the Titans are committing to running the football more in 2013, per the Nashville City Paper, there are only so many carries to go around for a pair of backs who want the football. Johnson may be the unquestioned featured back, but he'll be sharing time with a capable player behind him.
But even if Johnson does get the right amount of carries, his rushing average will need to significantly increase.
No running back who has hit 2,000 yards has ever done it without carrying a rushing average over five yards, including Johnson's 5.6-yard mark in 2009. In fact, it took three of the backs hitting six yards a carry to break 2,000.
Johnson's rushing average has been nothing more than average since 2009.
Here are his three averages since the 2,000-yard season: 4.3 in 2010, 4.0 in 2011 and 4.5 in 2012.
If Johnson once again receives 300 carries in 2013 (not unreasonable), he'll need to average at least 6.7 yards a carry (unlikely) to get over 2,000. With 350, he'll need an average of 5.7—a more attainable per carry number.
Regardless of the combination of carries and average, however, Johnson will need to see increases in both next season. He statistically can't reach 2,000 without big improvements to both numbers.
Minimize the Down Weeks
A growing plague for Johnson over the last two years has been his abundance of poor weeks in which he doesn't produce much of anything on the ground.
In fact, over his last 32 games, Johnson has been held under 50 yards in 12 and under 75 in 20.
Running backs who hit 2,000 yards generally don't have many down weeks over the course of 16 games.
Peterson failed to top 75 yards just once during his 2,000-yard season, and it came in Week 2 while the Vikings running back was still working his way back from ACL surgery. Overall, Peterson went over 100 yards 10 times, including a stretch of nine of 10 games to close out the season.
The moral of this part of the story? Consistency.
The running backs that have broke the 2,000-yard mark all displayed a level of season-long consistency that Johnson hasn't shown since 2009. He needs to return to his weekly dominance to have a chance at his lofty goal.
All the variables necessary for a 2,000-yard season have already come together for Johnson once in his NFL career. Health, perimeter dominance, explosive plays, touches, average and consistency were all there for Johnson in 2009.
Will Chris Johnson top 2,000 yards in 2013?
Replicating the feat in 2013 appears unlikely.
Health hasn't been an issue and improvements on the outside and explosive plays may return. There are serious question marks, however, about whether Johnson will receive the adequate amount of carries.
Will the consistency on a week-to-week basis will be there?
Accomplishing a 2,000-yard season remains one of the rarest milestones in the NFL, with only seven running backs having hit the mark in a single season.
For Johnson to produce an eighth season, everything must go right from Week 1 to 17. Despite upgrades on the offensive line, such a scenario seems unlikely for the 2013 season.
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