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Titans RB Chris Johnson vs. Vikings defense
The Titans have been a tough read offensively this season, with one explosive performance (437 yards vs. Detroit) and some real duds before last week against the Texans. Although the Titans did nothing special in that game, and style-wise they have been very basic, there was one crucial development: Chris Johnson had 141 yards rushing against a defense that had allowed a mere 203 in the first three games combined.
What changed? Well, the Titans used fewer zone runs and leaned more on quick-developing gap counters and sprint draws. It meant that Johnson was hitting the hole faster and that there was less chance of him being dragged down behind the line of scrimmage.
It also played to the strengths of the offensive line, which is a slower group inside. Former Vikings OG Steve Hutchinson clearly is in decline, and his lateral speed just isn’t there. More of a power-based blocking scheme helps somewhat. But Hutchinson, ORG Leroy Harris and C Fernando Velasco can be beat.
The Vikings have been strong up front this season, even surprisingly so. DT Kevin Williams is drawing double-teams again, NT Letroy Guion is miles ahead of where he was last season, reserve DT Christian Ballard has come on strong, and versatile Everson Griffen has helped rush and stop the run from various spots.
The linebackers also have been great, even without LB Erin Henderson (concussion) the past two games. Henderson could return to his WLB spot this week if he tests out well, but MLB Jasper Brinkley has done a tremendous job taking Henderson's spot inside in the nickel. SLB Chad Greenway is having a great season through four games.
This won’t be a big pass-rush game for the Vikings, and it could frustrate DEs Jared Allen and Brian Robison and Co. They are quick off the snap, but the Titans' offense — even with QB Matt Hasselbeck likely to start for an injured Jake Locker — is predicated on getting rid of the ball quickly. It’s all about rhythm and quick timing, and the tackles, Michael Roos and David Stewart, are a typically good pass-blocking pair (although ORT Stewart was eaten alive by Texans DLE J.J. Watt last week).
Instead, Allen and Robison must not be hell-bent to bend the edge, instead keeping contain, avoiding cut blocks and being ready to dive inside to help stop the run, all while respecting Johnson’s big-play ability. He’s still capable of breaking out, despite a long run this season of 19 yards.
Last week, FS Harrison Smith was given the task of helping eliminate Lions WR Calvin Johnson. This week, Smith’s duty could be to help “spy” on Johnson if the Titans can’t crank up the deep passing game. They have speed at wideout, but Kenny Britt might not play, Locker is out and rookie WR Kendall Wright has been mistake-prone.
Johnson is still a huge key for the Titans, especially with others banged up. The Vikings know they can’t snooze on him, and new coordinator Alan Williams has proven to be more willing to be aggressive than some of his precessors. Expect the Vikings' theme to be based on shooting gaps to make plays behind the line early in the contest because in the past, Johnson has gotten frustrated (and less patient) when he’s knocked for losses early in games. He has tended to check out of games mentally after some slow starts.
Want proof? In his first three seasons, Johnson’s best NFL campaigns, he averaged 23.7 yards and 4.6 yards per carry in the first quarter. He also scored nine TDs in those 47 games. In his past 20 games, which have been fraught with frustration and blame this season and last, those numbers have fallen to 16.4 and 3.7, respectively, with only one first-quarter TD.