With one combination of a cutback, juke and straight-line sprint during Thursday night's preseason opener, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson provided the end product for what took an entire offseason to rebuild.
And maybe, just maybe, his 58-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of a 22-21 loss to the Washington Redskins provided a glimpse into the kind of explosive, dominant running back we'll see regularly during the 2013 season.
The exhibition opener appeared to be all systems go for Johnson, who carried just twice but totaled 60 rushing yards. His touchdown scamper looked eerily familiar of the days when 2,000 yards was legitimately within the running back's cross-hairs.
On the first play of the offense's second series, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains called a stretch play to Johnson. The Titans offensive line wiped the Redskins defensive front down the line of scrimmage to the offense's right, which opened up acres of space for Johnson to cut back to his left.
Once in the open field, Johnson made rookie safety Bacarri Rambo look silly with his sudden yet fancy footwork. With Rambo tackling nothing but air, Johnson used his world-class speed to find pay dirt without being touched.
The Titans didn't give Johnson another carry the rest of the night. They didn't need to—their message had been sent, even if the calendar read Aug. 8 and the schedule said preseason Week 1.
This offense, with Johnson spearheading the effort, will be better by leaps and bounds rushing the football in 2013.
While it's still important to note that one impressive run against a ragtag lineup of starters and backups in the preseason does not ensure Johnson will be the same running back he was during his 2,000-yard season in '09, his dash did provide a brief sense of legitimization to an offense that was rededicated to the run this offseason.
With a clear goal of ditching the pass-happy offense installed in 2012, the Titans focused every point of their offseason to reclaiming their run-first identity.
In free agency, prized guard Andy Levitre was signed to a six-year, $46.8 million deal. A month later, the Titans used the 10th overall pick in the draft to take Alabama's road-grading guard Chance Warmack. Once a glaring weakness in 2012, the interior of the Titans offensive line suddenly looked formidable.
In between, Tennessee signed running back Shonn Greene, who rushed for 1,000 yards for the New York Jets last season, to help take some of the load off Johnson. Green added a 19-yard scoring run during Thursday's first quarter.
So far, so good for the Titans run game. Overall, Tennessee rushed for 92 yards and two touchdowns in the opening 15 minutes of the 2013 preseason.
In a sense, the Titans proved Thursday what they had been saying—both in words and action—all offseason long: There will be no smoke and mirrors with this offense. Running the football will be at its core.
Johnson told Albert Breer of NFL Network the company line ahead of the preseason opener:
We're meaner, nastier, not really trying to trick people, just wanting to go out there and run the ball ... A lot of teams, with the additions we made on the offensive line, I think they know we're gonna run the ball. And we're fixing to go out there and run the ball. And they know we're gonna run the ball, and you gotta stop it.
The biggest beneficiary of the throwback look on offense is almost certainly Johnson.
Since his 2,000-yards campaign, Johnson has failed to crack 1,400 in any of the last three seasons. His rushing attempts have also dropped from a career-high 358 in '09 to 316 in 2010, 262 in 2011, and 276 in 2012.
If Johnson can recapture a number of his lost carries in the Titans offense, and chances are he will, there should be little doubt that he could reposition himself as one of the game's most feared running backs.
In such a scenario, runs like the one he provided Thursday night might once again become commonplace, even if a rookie attempting to make his first NFL tackle isn't the one waiting for him at the second level.
"I just gave him a move," Johnson said of his touchdown run, via ESPN. "My offensive line, they got a great push on it, and they pushed those guys to the right side and gave me a cutback lane."
In the process of explaining his encouraging jaunt, Johnson provided part of the framework for why he could once again be a dominant NFL running back. With a talented set of blockers in front of him, and an offense redesigned to pound the football, the home run-hitting Johnson might be setting the table for his biggest season in years.
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