Why Chris Johnson Is the Playmaker the New York Jets Desperately Needed

Ryan Alfieri@Ryan_AlfieriCorrespondent IIIApril 18, 2014

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - NOVEMBER 11:  Running back Chris Johnson #28 of the Tennessee Titans scores a touchdown against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on November 11, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida. The Titans defeated the Dolphins 37-3. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
Marc Serota/Getty Images

After a long flirtation period, the New York Jets have finally found a new offensive toy to play with in former Tennessee Titan Chris Johnson.

While it could be argued that the Jets would have been better off spending their money on more needy positions on offense (particularly wide receiver and tight end), there is no disputing the fact that Johnson adds a dimension of speed an explosion to an otherwise-dormant offense.

Now, the challenge for the Jets is to find a way to maximize their value without cutting into the production of the established starter, Chris Ivory. Because the skill sets of the two players are so vastly different, keeping both players in situation-specific roles should not be a difficult task, as long as the Jets understand the strengths and limitations of each player.

The Titans tried to build their offense around Johnson, signing him to a massive extension in 2010 to freeze a healthy portion of their cap space for the foreseeable future. Despite breaching the 1,000-yard mark in each season, Johnson never lived up to the contract that paid him like an elite running back. 

The reason why the Johnson experiment never panned out stems from the fact that the Titans treated Johnson like a "foundation" running back when he is truly more of a complementary runner. Despite averaging over 4.0 yards per carry in each season of his career (besides in 2013, when he averaged 3.9), Johnson is a "hit-or-miss" back that does not keep offenses in favorable down-and-distance situations consistently.

In his new role with the Jets, Johnson has the potential to revitalize his career in a role that suits his skill set without being the sole focal point of an offense.

The CJ2K Effect

Johnson has not been able to match his outrageous production from the 2009 season, but much of that has to do with the added attention he has received. His name still strikes fear into opposing defenses, and it shows by the way they adjust their alignment to account for his threat to score from anywhere on the field.

On this play against the Kansas City Chiefs from 2013, notice how Eric Berry is creeping up into the box, becoming the eighth defender in range for run support.

NFL Game Rewind

At its core, football is a simple numbers game—when there is a "light" box (seven or less defenders), it favors the running game. A "heavy" box (usually eight defenders) makes it difficult to run at the expense of pass defense. 

The safety is the position that decides the number of players in the box. Here, the Chiefs are willing to leave all of their cornerbacks in man coverage with one deep safety just to give their run defense an extra man in support. 

If Johnson is somehow able to sneak by and get in a one-on-one situation with a lone safety—well, the results are predictable:

Chris Johnson only gained one yard on this play, but it was an opportunity for the Titans to capitalize on the Chiefs' aggressiveness against the run and attack one of their cornerbacks in a one-on-one situation.

Even Johnson's presence on the field will have a favorable impact on the Jets' passing game, even if he is nothing more than a decoy. Until proven otherwise, Johnson is still a threat to score from anywhere on the field, and defensive coordinators must account for his ability.

The Speed Dimension

More than anything else, Chris Johnson is known for his speed, and rightly so—he owns the combine record for the 40-yard dash at 4.24 seconds.

It is this reason why the Jets were willing to spend an extra $4 million for an upgrade over the adequate Bilal Powell.

Much like Johnson, Powell provides a lot of value in the passing game with his reliability in pass protection, his hands and ability to make defenders miss. However, the Jets are leaving a lot of yards on the field because of Powell's relatively average top-end speed. 

On this Week 4 play against the Buffalo Bills, Powell does nice job getting to the edge to pick up a solid nine yards—but another runner with more speed—like Johnson—could have turned this into a massive play. 

NFL Game Rewind

Johnson's speed would have given him a better chance of beating the safety to the sideline than turning upfield for a long touchdown. Powell did the right thing by going as deep down the field as possible, but he didn't have a chance to beat the safety to the sideline. 

Powell's production is steady but limited—the opposite of Johnson. 

Johnson's unsteadiness makes him undesirable as a "foundation" back that sustains drives, but in limited situations like these (especially in space), his upside outweighs his negative plays.

The Vick Factor

The Jets have one more piece of the puzzle that could take Johnson's game to the next level: Michael Vick. If Vick winds up winning the starting quarterback job over Geno Smith, it would only assist the production of Chris Johnson in 2014.

Vick's mobility has made life easier on his running backs during his days in Philadelphia with LeSean McCoy. Vick's mobility forces opposing defense to use an extra man to account for his escapability, taking away a body responsible for stopping the running back. 

The impact Vick can have on the speed of a defense was evident on this long McCoy run in 2011 against the Chicago Bears.

The linebacker for the Bears (Lace Briggs) appears to be responsible for "spying" Vick, mirroring his movements to keep him behind the line of scrimmage. 

This protects the Bears against a Vick scramble, but it takes Briggs out of the play just long enough for the Eagles to capitalize and turn a short run into a long gain. 

NFL Game Rewind

When Briggs is forced to drop into a spy, McCoy and his blockers are able to get a few yards down the field—with numbers. The Eagles are able to easily block the remaining Bears (including Briggs) to spring McCoy for a 27-yard gain. 

NFL Game Rewind

Had the Eagles not been playing with a more mobile quarterback, Briggs would have been able to act on the Eagles' run keys more aggressively and possibly shut down the play before it had a chance to take off. 

The combined speed of Vick and Johnson is as least as great as the Vick-McCoy combination. This will cause defenses to play on their heels in fear of giving up a big play, opening up opportunities for players across the field.

While Johnson may be in a more ideal situation from a schematic perspective with the Jets, expectations still need to be tempered somewhat for a player that will see a smaller role than he has ever seen in his career. His numbers will see a decline because of the presence of Chris Ivory, the established workhorse back.

Johnson's fantasy value will be down, but his efficiency will be as high as it has been since 2009. No longer the focal point of the offense, the Jets can pick their spots with Johnson, using careful injections of his speed in situations that are favorable to his skill set, specifically third downs.

Without many other speedy assets at the receiving and tight end positions, the Jets must use their abnormal amount of talent at running back to generate the bulk of their offense. As unconventional of a way to generate offense as this is in today's pass-happy NFL, the Jets are as well-equipped as any team to pull it off.


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