With expectations rising in New York, finding a spark to ignite the New York Jets offense was a necessity. With the rival New England Patriots stocking up on weaponry to make a run in 2014, general manager John Idzik was essentially forced to add a game-changing player who could alter the course of a game in the blink of an eye.
Chris Johnson never quite lived up to the monstrous contract he signed with the Titans in 2010 because of his inconsistent production from game to game, but the explosive runner can be the difference between the Jets making the playoffs for the first time since 2010 and the team spending yet another January on the golf course.
Signing the player was the easy part. Now, the Jets have to devise a plan to maximize every carry Johnson gets without stepping on the toes of the established lead back, Chris Ivory.
The first step in crafting a long-term role for Johnson is to establish the type of player Johnson is at this stage in his career based on his shortcomings with the Tennessee Titans.
Not a Foundation Runner
Glancing at his stats, Johnson appears to be one of the more consistent runners in the league. What these stats don't say is how Johnson was erratic on a play-by-play or even a game-by-game basis.
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With the Titans, Johnson was forced into the role of being a "foundation" runner that the Titans, largely for economic reasons, built their offense around. They lived and died by Johnson's ability to make big plays with his feet, and the results were predictably uneven.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Johnson had just three "positive" game grades last year, compared to four "negative" and nine "neutral" grades—often alternating weeks with his performance.
The only thing Johnson could be relied upon on a week-to-week basis was his availability. He's missed just one game in his six-year career, during his rookie season in 2008. The fact that Johnson has been injury-free given his position and smaller frame is nothing short of remarkable, regardless of his uneven production.
Johnson is only as good as the environment will allow him to be, by his own admission. His success and failures can be derived from the performance of his offensive line and the amount of attention he has received from opposing defenses.
Chris Johnson: I'm going to be as good as my offensive line http://t.co/ZlK5foC4— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 1, 2012
Based on their team success (and the amount of money they invested in Johnson), the Titans proved that making Johnson the centerpiece of an offense is a recipe doomed for failure. However, he appears to be in the perfect situation with the Jets as a secondary threat who fills in all of the skill-set gaps of Ivory.
The Ideal Spell Back
Labeling Johnson as "just" a third-down runner is selling his ability a bit short, as he can still be an effective runner who resembles the 2009 Johnson in the right situations against favorable defensive looks.
The key to getting Johnson as much opportunity as possible to make plays is to get him in open space so he can do things like this to opposing defenses:
In NFL terms, "open space" is anything less than an eight-man front with two deep safeties in the back end. When he was asked to be the "bell cow" runner against heavy boxes with heavy personnel blocking in front of him, the results were disappointing.
On this play, Johnson only gains one yard following his blockers into a massive wall of defenders. This style of football may best suit the hard-hitting Ivory, but Johnson needs space and time to excel using his trademark speed.
The tricky part is to get Johnson in favorable situations on first and second downs, as most third downs will be used to pass the ball deep downfield. Johnson is effective as a receiver (over 2,000 yards in his career), but the majority of third downs are used to complete passes downfield, not to dump the ball off to the running back.
There are two ways the Jets can put Johnson in favorable situations with the use of formations and personnel. The first way is to spread the field out as much as possible with three or more wide receivers and receiving tight ends on the field detached from the formation.
Here is a 2nd-and-7 play against the St. Louis Rams last season. While this situation is far from being an obvious passing down, the Titans are in a three-receiver set that spreads out the Rams defense.
The draw play results in a well-blocked lane for Johnson to run through. While this is an easy play to gain quality yards for just about any back, only a few runners are able to turn this play into a touchdown.
Johnson is able to split the defenders and get the TD, saving the Titans from a goal-to-go headache.
Johnson was able to take advantage of a defense that was expecting a pass. Slow to react to the play, they had no chance to beat Johnson to the end zone.
This does not mean Johnson can only be used in passing sets against unsuspecting defenses. There is another formation that Johnson could thrive in with the Jets—the pistol.
One of the increasingly popular formations in the league, the pistol simply places the running back behind the quarterback.
This accomplishes two things: First, it allows the quarterback to run an easy play action without turning his back to the defense. Second, it masks the running back's first step from the defense, making it more difficult to tell which direction he is headed in.
Both of these effects make defenders a beat slower in their play recognition, giving the speedy Johnson an even greater advantage.
Of course, the pistol and multiple-receiver formation can be combined (as they often are), but the pistol gives the Jets a way to feature Johnson in a favorable situation without sacrificing their personnel flexibility.
Finding a Balance
Even if the Jets are able to find formations, situations, personnel groupings and individual plays that cater to Johnson's strength, the optimization of Chris Johnson will not be complete until they find a workload balance between him and Ivory.
Johnson may be the flashier player who will see more time on SportsCenter, but the Jets must not get away from the running game formula that won them an unexpected amount of games a year ago. Running behind Ivory was a huge part of their limited offensive success, as he was able to overcome an average passing game and offensive line by creating yards on his own.
Chris Ivory was the only RB with 150+ carries to top 3.0 YPC AFTER contact. Adrian Peterson not far behind at 2.97— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 7, 2014
Unlike Johnson, Ivory is a sustaining runner, able to get three to five yards consistently. He and Johnson may have comparable averages by the end of the season, but Johnson is not able to sustain drives like Ivory can.
Not all yards are created equal—getting four yards play after play on the ground is much more effective and reliable than exchanging a few negative plays for a sporadic positive play. Getting consistent yardage in the running game allows an offense to stay in manageable situations, not having to rely on a young quarterback such as Geno Smith to connect on so many consecutive long third downs to keep drives alive.
Ivory should undoubtedly get the bulk of the carries on the season, while Johnson's workload will take a hit from his usual 270-plus-carry season. Hitting a number that is just shy of 200 carries would be a much more realistic number for Johnson to expect.
Johnson will have his share of negative plays; the key is to minimize the ratio between good and bad plays by crafting a plan for him that is essentially the opposite of what the Titans tried to do.
If used in the correct situations with the proper workload, Johnson could turn out to be the missing piece in the Jets' puzzle to finally wrestle the AFC East away from the Patriots.