Should NFL Defenses Still Be Scared of Chris Johnson?

Matt Bowen NFL National Lead WriterApril 8, 2014

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson (28) runs during the third quarter of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. The Titans won 16-9. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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There are certain offensive players in the NFL who jump off the screen when you turn on the tape. Think of speed, acceleration and big-play ability that forces opposing defensive coordinators to alter their game plans on Sundays.

Chris Johnson was considered one of those guys because he could flip the field, cut the ball back and expose poor angles in the secondary with his top-end speed.

But after his release from the Titans (coming off a season in which he averaged only 3.9 yards per carry), is Johnson still a legit threat who scares defenders every time he touches the ball?

Let’s discuss Johnson’s skill set, take a look at some positives on the All-22 tape and break down why the running back was unable to produce consistent numbers in 2013.


Where Are the Explosive Plays with Johnson?

Johnson isn’t a back who is going to consistently break tackles at the second level or win in the open field with lateral movement.

Mark Zaleski

Instead, his game is built on speed that allows him to bounce the ball, cut back or accelerate through the hole to take advantage of poor defensive technique in the run front/secondary.

That’s where Johnson can turn the corner, find running room backside or explode through the A-gap in a base power scheme to produce explosive plays.

However, in 2013, Johnson’s longest run of the season was only 30 yards as he struggled to produce those game-changing plays in the run game that we are accustomed to seeing from the veteran back.

Why? Let’s take a closer look.


Play the Cutback Lanes vs. Johnson

The Titans were a heavy zone/stretch team in 2013 out of both one- and two-back alignments.

This gave Johnson the opportunity to press the edge of the defense with the option of bouncing the ball to the outside or cutting back versus linebackers who pursued hard over the top.

Here’s an example from the Titans' matchup versus the Rams.

NFL Game Rewind

The Titans' play is a two-back zone/stretch to the open (weak) side of the formation. Johnson reads the flow of the defense immediately and recognizes the safety filling on the edge. That allows Johnson to cut back and work the ball to the closed (strong) side of the formation.

NFL Game Rewind

This is where we see that top-end speed versus the contain technique of the cornerback. Johnson cuts the angle/fit of the cornerback and uses his speed to get to the edge of the defense. That also eliminates the entry point of the free safety (in between core of formation/cornerback). 

NFL Game Rewind

An excellent cut that gives Johnson the edge and the angle he needs to take this up the field for an explosive gain versus St. Louis. 

However, the defenses that took away the cutback lanes (edge defender/safety squeezing to the ball) limited Johnson’s ability to find that room where he could make one cut, get vertical and accelerate through the second level.

Opposing defensive fronts would flatten the edge to take away Johnson’s option to bounce the ball with backside-contain players showing discipline in their angle/fit.

That’s why you would see Johnson hesitate (and lose vision) at times on the tape; a player who looked indecisive instead of picking a hole and getting up the field to use that speed or acceleration.

And that really limited his overall production in a scheme that is ideal for his skill set as a running back.


The Power Game  

The Titans used the core power game (Power O, Counter OF) to open running lanes for Johnson in 2013.

Think of the basic idea here: block down, kick out and pull the guard (both open and closed) to create those creases in the defensive front for Johnson to attack.

Here’s an example from the Titans' matchup with the Colts on the one-back power with the wide receiver in a reduced/nasty split to dig out the safety support.

NFL Game Rewind

The Titans will block down on the edge and pull the backside guard to account for the inside linebacker scraping to the play side. And with the receiver working up to the safety, the Titans have numbers.

NFL Game Rewind

Because Johnson shows patience with the ball (which allows his blocks to develop), the Titans build a running lane off the linebacker. That gives Johnson the opportunity to work through the second level of the defense and force Colts safety LaRon Landry to take the proper angle to make the tackle.

NFL Game Rewind

This is the speed we always talk about with Johnson. Even with Landry taking an inside-out angle to the ball, Johnson’s acceleration up the field eliminates that angle and allows the running back to beat the safety for a touchdown.

However, the issue is we simply didn’t see that type of production enough this season.

There were far too many carries from Johnson that went for two or three yards instead of the veteran showing the same patience, burst and acceleration up the field that can expose secondaries.

At times, Johnson would work laterally to the line of scrimmage or show hesitation at the point of attack, which resulted in the running back missing opportunities to get through the hole. 

The lack of consistency here in the power run game is on par with what we talked about with Johnson in the stretch/zone schemes.


Is Johnson Still a Game-Changing Player?

The All-22 examples on Johnson showcase his skill set as a back who can make one cut to break contain or accelerate vertically to beat the safety’s angle to the ball.

Phelan M. Ebenhack

Johnson can still provide an impact running the football, and that pairs with his skills out of the backfield in the screen game (slip, shoot screens). Plus his speed will always force second-level defenders to play with the proper technique/run fits to take away his ability to flip the field.

There is value here for a durable player (that always answers the bell on Sundays) if he lands with a team that knows how to maximize his overall talent. 

But is Johnson the type of player (such as a Randy Moss during my career) that scares defenses to the point where they have to game-plan specifically to stop him?

Based off the tape, and Johnson’s lack of top-tier production from 2013, I wouldn’t say that he is at this point of his career. And the money he gets on the free-agent market will most likely reflect that. 


Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.