Is Chris Johnson back?

We heard a lot of excuses for Chris Johnson’s terrible first half.

It was the lockout’s fault. It was the holdout’s fault. It was the offensive line’s fault. It was Johnson’s lack of drive after signing a lucrative long-term contract just prior to the start of the season. It was new offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. It was natural regression for a running back who was somehow over the hill at the age of 26.

Whatever it was, it appears as though it’s no longer a factor.

After being easily the worst starting running back in the league over the first eight games of the season, Johnson now has three 100-yard games in his last four outings. He had 130 yards rushing in Week 10 against Carolina, 190 in Week 12 against Tampa Bay and 153 against Buffalo this past Sunday.

As a result of that stretch, his yards per carry average has sprouted from 3.0 to 4.1. And had he not struggled with only 13 yards on 12 carries in Week 11 against Atlanta, the rise would be significantly more tremendous. David Climer of the Tennessean points out that over 40 percent of the yards Johnson has gained this season came in the last two games.

Now, after giving him $53 million in early September, the Titans would obviously rather Johnson spreads these yards out more consistently, but if this is a sign that he’s returning to the glory days of 2009, then they have a lot to be excited about.

So, is it?

Here’s a look at the four defenses Johnson has hit triple digits against this season (Browns, Panthers, Bucs, Bills):
Defensive YPC: 4.6 (would be eighth-worst in the league)
Avg. rank vs. run: 28th

And here’s a look at the eight defenses Johnson has struggled against this season (Jags, Ravens, Broncos, Steelers, Texans, Colts, Bengals, Falcons):
Defensive YPC: 3.9 (would be eighth-best in the league)
Avg. rank vs. run: 11th

Pretty amazing. The reality is that Johnson has probably been the same guy for much of the season, and that he and the Titans just ran into a lot of stout defenses during the first half of the year. That probably means that Johnson is a lot better than what we saw early, but not quite as phenomenal as he’s been in recent weeks.

The final four weeks of the season will be interesting, because the Titans don’t face any overly stellar run defenses, but they also don’t go up against any real bad ones (aside from maybe the Saints this week). Here’s a look at their final four opponents:
Defensive YPC: 4.3 (would be 19th-best in the league)
Avg. rank vs. run: 16th

Even if Johnson can simply find that happy medium over the last quarter of the season, he might end up calling this the second-best year of his career. He’d need to average 128 rushing yards per game to match his total from a Pro Bowl 2010 season, which is do-able. He also already has more receiving yards than he did last season (272 to 245) and is only four receptions short of the total of 44 he had in 2010.

He still has just four touchdowns (compared to 12 in 2010, 16 in 2009 and 10 in 2008) but that number is also trending upward after he scored twice in Week 13 in Buffalo.

So for the remainder of the regular season, things are looking up for Chris Johnson. But based on the numbers above, the playoffs could be a different story.