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Key matchup: Lions run defense vs. Titans running game

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Posted Sept. 22, 2012 @ 12:01 p.m. ET
By Mike Wilkening

Saturday's key matchup involves a running back who got within 100 yards of Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record only three seasons ago: 

Lions run defense vs. Titans running game

This is one of the more intriguing matchups of the week, and it’s one of the most important, too, though not for the reasons you might suspect.

There’s been so much discussion of the Titans’ running-game woes, and it’s all warranted. RB Chris Johnson has rushed for all of 21 yards on 19 carries in two games. Tennessee had one of the game’s most dangerous rushing attacks, but it has been punchless thus far, and it has sputtered quite a bit the last two seasons. To wit: in his last 18 games, Johnson has failed to exceed 60 rushing yards 12 times.

Could the Titans’ running game get it together Sunday? And could Johnson recapture his best form? Such developments wouldn’t be a huge surprise considering Johnson’s résumé. Even in a somewhat disappointing 2011 campaign, he exceeded 100 rushing yards four times and racked up 343 yards on the ground in a two-game period late in the season.

A burst of production from Chris Johnson would please the fantasy-football players of the world. It wouldn’t go unappreciated by the Titans and their fans, either. Anything that would give all parties the hope that the Titans’ running game could again be strong would be much enjoyed. It’s only Week Three, after all. There is hope yet for all teams, even 0-2 ones like Tennessee. It isn’t unreasonable still to believe that a club’s best-laid plans can come together.

But let’s look at the Lions’ side of the equation for a moment. They are 1-1, with two games left before the Week Five bye. After facing the Titans Sunday, they host the Vikings. A 3-1 record entering that week of rest is attainable — and perhaps necessary, as four of their first five games after the bye are on the road.

The Lions’ run defense has been hit-and-miss. They were 30th in yards per carry allowed a season ago, surrendering 5.0 yards an attempt. Last Sunday, the 49ers racked up 148 yards on 27 carries in a 27-19 win vs. Detroit. All four 49ers who rushed the ball — RBs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, as well as QB Alex Smith and WR Mario Manningham — had a rush of at least 10 yards.

Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, speaking to reporters Friday, said that the defense was perhaps a little too excited and didn’t carry out its responsibilities well enough.

“The game got us and I saw it before the game,” Cunningham said. “You know, when you’ve been there a long time and seen players come out, they were so hyped up.

“And the linebackers, one of their things was they were going to jam (49ers TE) Vernon Davis. (They) lost their keys a couple of times and we had seven runs that I was really upset about. Each one of them was a guy not proper keying, not aligning properly. and that was disappointing.

“I was really disappointed at the end of the game. Obviously, you don’t sleep after you come back from an all-night flight. I didn’t sleep for quite a while, but I put all the plays together and graded every one of them. So there’s an answer and it’s simple. Do your job.”

In Week One, the Lions’ defense presumably did just that against Rams RB Steven Jackson, limiting him to 53 yards on 21 carries in a 27-23 Detroit win. If the defense can keep Jackson in check, why can’t it do the same against Johnson?

This is a matchup the Lions have to believe they can win. The Lions’ front seven is quite good, and the secondary is getting healthier, though FS Louis Delmas (knee) is still out.

It’s only September, but this looks to be a pivotal game for the Lions. If they can shut down Johnson and beat the Titans, they will enter the Week Four matchup vs. Minnesota (and star RB Adrian Peterson) as clear favorites. But if Johnson gives the Lions’ fits, and if Detroit falls to 1-2, it will be a very disappointing outcome for a club with aspirations of returning to the postseason. That’s why this matchup interests me so. The Lions have much to gain, and much to lose. 

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