Chris Johnson had an easy out last season. It took until the week before training camp before he agreed to a contract with the Titans at a time when head coach Mike Munchak was new to the head-coaching job and offensive coordinator Chris Palmer was revamping the offensive playbook, terminology and running game in his first year in Tennessee.
Johnson did not report to camp in playing shape and got off to a very slow start. And for most of 2011, he did not break the big runs that had become his trademark finishing behind 18 other runners with merely one plus-40 run. He ended up with career lows in yards (1,047) and average (4.0 ypc).
However, after being held to a mere four yards on 11 carries against New England in Week One — his second full year in the system — the Titans have legitimate reason to be concerned.
Look no further than their decision this offseason to go big and heavy on the interior of their offensive line. In OLT Michael Roos and ORT David Stewart, the Titans possess one of the most consistent tackle tandems in the league. The inside was in need of a makeover, with injuries taking a toll on C Eugene Amano and ORG Jake Scott not being brought back. Heavyset OLG LeRoy Harris moved from the left side to the right side, in came the aging, declining Steve Hutchinson as a prized, look-the-part free-agent signing and former undrafted free-agent vagabond Fernando Velasco was plugged in at center, giving the Titans three slow-footed pluggers in the middle of their line and only one lineman, Roos, with quick feet.
An explosive, one-cut, stretch-zone runner with world-class speed and average eyes like Johnson would benefit most from a quick-footed zone-blocking scheme that allows him to stick his foot in the dirt and go when he discovers a crease. Instead, Palmer, with ties to the Bill Parcells coaching tree that's known for establishing smash-mouth lines, and OL coach Bruce Matthews, a Hall-of-Fame talent, decided to assemble a power offensive line best suited for a big back who knows what hole to hit every time — a scheme better designed for backup RB Jamie Harper.
No NFL head coach has won more consecutive season openers than Bill Belichick, with nine in a row, and he is undefeated against quarterbacks making their first career start, as Jake Locker was. The odds were heavily stacked against the Titans’ offense entering the game, especially with New England’s top three picks — Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Tavon Wilson — adding energy to every level of the Patriots’ defense. Nonetheless, the Titans’ running game could be stagnant if it continues to stick with a system that's not well-suited for the strength of its greatest offensive star.
• Chicago’s offensive line got off to a rough start, with OLT J'Marcus Webb getting beat by Colts OLB Robert Mathis on an inside move to start the game, ORT Gabe Carimi getting flagged for a false-start penalty on the next snap and a rattled Jay Cutler tossing a pick-six on the second series. However, the supporting cast of weapons surrounding Cutler has never been better than it is in GM Phil Emery’s first year, with free-agent additions Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush and rookie WR Alshon Jeffery supersizing the Bears’ offense and lessening the enormous workload that has worn down Matt Forte in recent seasons. After fattening his wallet with a four-year contract extension prior to the season, Forte looked more sleek running routes and sifting through traffic with the ball in his hands and stands to benefit as much as Cutler from an offense that's capable of distributing the ball more evenly.
• The increased speed, physicality and discipline of Tampa Bay’s defense was what made the greatest difference in the Buccaneers’ 16-10 victory over Carolina. Rookie FS Mark Barron looked like a young Ronnie Lott leveling the game’s strongest pound-for-pound receiver, Steve Smith, on the sideline with a hammering blow. More impressive, after being utilized most extensively in the box at Alabama as a senior, was the way Barron was able to range deep from the box and break up a pass over the top intended for speedster Louis Murphy on third down with a 13-7 lead in jeopardy. RB Doug Martin and WLB Lavonte David combined with Barron to make huge impacts in their first outings as rookies and keyed much of the Buccaneers’ success. Since Mark Dominik was promoted to the GM post, the Buccaneers have selected Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Mark Barron and Doug Martin in the first round. The jury will remain out for a few more years, but all five have shown the potential to become impact performers and key tempo-setters, and Dominik’s first true head-coaching hire has the look of another home run. Greg Schiano was the only head coach of the seven new bosses (counting the Saints’ interim head coach Aaron Kromer) whose teams played Sunday to come away victorious. Chuck Pagano, Jeff Fisher, Mike Mularkey, Joe Philbin and Romeo Crennel all lost their debuts. Oakland’s Dennis Allen will get his first chance against San Diego on Monday night.
• At a time when league evaluators are suggesting that someone in Arizona will take the fall for the mega-contract given to QB Kevin Kolb, give head coach Ken Whisenhunt credit for not letting bad contracts get in the way of making the best personnel decisions, a task that is clouded for many other organizations. John Skelton earned the starting job with better poise in the pocket, but when Kolb was forced to replace the injured Skelton late in the game against Seattle, he led the Cardinals’ no-huddle offense with a confidence that has been lacking throughout his stay in the desert and gave reason to believe Whisenhunt still might be able to harden Kolb's resolve. Having to travel to Foxborough to face Bill Belichick and a young defense that's much more capable of creating pressure with its front four could easily send Kolb back into the shaky, wide-eyed funk that has defined his short NFL career.
• The best approach to beat Peyton Manning has long been to keep him off the field as long as possible and win the time-of-possession battle. The Steelers did an excellent job of controlling the clock in the second half against Denver, but when Manning had opportunities, he carved up one of the NFL’s best-schemed defenses, led by Dick LeBeau, with a precision unmatched around the league. After sitting out a year, Manning appears even more cunning, crafty and sly than he did in 2010, when he led the league in football intelligence.
• Jim Harbaugh produced 13 regular-season wins in 2011 despite a lockout-shortened offseason and his being a first-year head coach who was coming from the college ranks and being relatively unfamiliar with the NFL’s personnel and the strategies, schemes and styles of many of the league’s coaches. After having a full offseason to install his offense, fine-tune his system and upgrade a roster that returns all 11 starters to the NFL’s most intimidating defense, the Niners could be dangerous this season if they remain hungry and grounded and don’t buy into the press clippings. The offense, reloaded with the best core of playmaking talent it has fielded since the days of Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig and Tom Rathman, showed how good it can be when it traveled to Lambeau Field and ran up a lead against the Packers on the road. With PK David Akers connecting on a record 63-yard field goal and the special teams playing at a high level, the Niners have the type of talent that's capable of running the table.
• The Giants allowed their offensive line to grow too old in recent years and sorely need an infusion of youth to remain relevant against better competition. Dallas, featuring the game’s preeminent pass rusher in DeMarcus Ware, won the battle in the trenches against the Giants, and the Buccaneers' stingy new-look "D" could give the Giants' O-line similar fits in Week Two.
• The NFL’s best organizations know how to evaluate their own and take care of their best players, coaches and personnel executives. With Peyton Manning finally out of the AFC South and the Texans well established to make a strong run for years, GM Rick Smith made the right move to extend QB Matt Schaub’s contract and eliminate any distractions that inherently come with entering a contract year. Since Wade Phillips arrived last year and properly identified the pieces to make his 3-4 front roll, the Texans have been a team to be reckoned with. Having a quarterback in his prime who's familiar with the nuances of Gary Kubiak’s offense locked up long term should only add stability in the short term and send a message to the team that the organization will act in the best interests of players and the club.