Let’s be frank here: Chris Johnson’s struggles have made your fantasy football team suck. I know very little about fantasy football, but I know how to read a stat line, and this is what Johnson’s says through three weeks of the season: 33 carries, 45 yards, and a meager 1.4 yards per carry. That’s got to affect your team, because it’s, well, not good.
There’s a few reasons for Johnson’s struggles, starting with the man himself. He has left yards on the field on occasion because he’s either not seeing them, not beating the tackler, or he’s far too interested in bouncing it to the outside where he believes he can outrun the entire defense and Usain Bolt. But he’s not solely to blame; the Titans’ offensive line shares some blame, and so do the damn good run defenses he’s faced.
In the three games against the Patriots, Chargers and Lions, Johnson’s faced three of the top 11 run defenses in the league.
The Patriots are seventh and the Chargers are fourth, with the Lions coming in eleventh. That’s tough to run on and perhaps even tougher to block, which is where his offensive linemen come into play. Simply put: they’re not blocking well enough. They haven’t done a good enough job of moving the opposition from the starting point, whether it be with pure power in man blocking, or driving them laterally toward the sideline on zone stretches. On any given play in the first three weeks, the weaknesses of Tennessee’s offensive line can be found and Johnson knows this; it’s why he blamed them in a “I’m not saying this but I’m saying that” roundabout way, as documented by my colleague Sean Tomlinson.
But the blame doesn’t stop with them. At times, Johnson has left not just yards but touchdowns on the field because he’s opted to run outside the tackle box and (hopefully) dance around defenders en route to the end zone. His zero touchdowns show that method hasn’t quite worked.
An example came in Week 3 when the Titans were four plays into their second drive against the Lions defense. The down and distance reads third down with two yards to go from the Lions’ 39 yard line. Johnson is part of the 22 personnel that offensive coordinator Chris Palmer trotted out, and the called play is an inside zone stretch. In the game log the result reads like a success: “C. Johnson right tackle to DET 28 for 11 yards.” But that’s a lie, and there’s much more to it.
When he got the hand-off from Locker, Johnson was reading the outside hip of the offensive guard on the stretch run and was expected to cutback to find a crease to run through. After a few steps, he planted his outside foot in the ground and broke stride to his left against a nine-man Lions front. To that left side, there was an alley developed by his offensive line (hurrah!) because of their ability to get the defensive line flowing right, but Johnson didn’t see it.
A few more steps followed and Johnson was now near his blockers, but he still hadn’t decided which way to go. The alley to his left was still available and there appeared to be one developing to his near right, but that one wasn’t nearly as appealing because there was a strong safety coming down to fill the lane.
What came next was Johnson running into his blockers’ rear ends…
A bad angle from the safety and quality balance from Johnson led him to ultimate find the right lane, and once he was done bouncing around he gained 11 yards after bursting to the outside. But in this case the result isn’t nearly as important, because it masks a major mistake, as even during one of his few successful runs Johnson danced and was indecisive.
It’s fantastic that he was able to move the chains and keep the drive alive, but it ended in three points for the Titans instead of seven. Johnson completely missed the alley to his left which would have resulted in much less work for a touchdown and 6 points for his fantasy football owners (!).
A similar issue arose against the Chargers in Week 2, when Johnson chose to extend the play to the outside instead of hitting the alley created on the inside. It wouldn’t have been a touchdown, even though Tennessee was in the red zone, but he may have gotten more yards and more than likely would have at least equaled the output of four yards — if he had gone inside, the defender was five yards in front of him.
Johnson’s propensity to bounce it to the outside this season has cost him some yardage and is one of the reasons he has not been as dynamic of a runner as he was in previous years. The hope this season was that he’d bounce back to his old form after putting up back-to-back +150 yard performances near the conclusion of the 2011 season.
But it appears, at the moment, that it was a false boom. Johnson’s struggles are not all on him, as the Titans’ offensive line has struggled and opponents have not. And I’m not entirely sure how much better his numbers will be in the coming weeks as he faces the likes of Houston, Minnesota and Pittsburgh.