Chris Johnson Looks to Break Out Behind Revamped Blocking Game

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Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson has received a lot of criticism lately. Some of said criticism could have to do with the massive amount of money he is owed on the remainder of his contract ($41 million cap hit over four years). Some of it could have to do with his perceived lack of production over the past three seasons after a breakout 2.000-yard campaign back in 2009.

No matter what skeptics might conclude, Johnson’s regression in terms of production since 2009 might have to do with a lack of a supporting cast and an offensive line that struggled opening up holes on the ground.

This likely won’t be the case in 2013.

Tennessee added guard Andy Levitre from the Buffalo Bills to a six-year, $46.8 million contract in free agency. Levitre helped anchor a sixth-ranked rushing attack in Buffalo last season. In fact, the Bills were only one of four teams to average five or more rushing yards per play.

The Titans doubled down on the guard position with the selection of former Alabama standout Chance Warmack in the first round of April’s draft. The massive interior lineman helped lead the No. 2 rushing attack in the SEC, a unit that averaged nearly 5.6 yards per attempt.

In what has to be considered an under-the-radar move in the grand scheme of things, tight end Delanie Walker was also brought on to help Tennessee’s rushing attack. While the veteran had his issues with dropped passes last season in San Francisco, he has been among the best run-blocking tight ends in the NFL over the past few seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as the second-best run-blocking tight end in the NFL in 2012.

These three pieces promise to help Johnson regain his old form.

Johnson is the type of running back who needs space at the line of scrimmage in order to succeed. Without this, he tends to dance too much in an attempt to make something out of nothing. This was a continuing theme from the veteran over the past couple seasons. The idea was to be able to create yardage on his own without any help from the offensive line. A someone who relies on speed and elusiveness, this put Johnson behind the proverbial eight-ball because he wasn’t able to break off tackles and make plays on his own.

Despite only attempting two rushes in Tennessee’s opening preseason game this past weekend, he was able to show us exactly what type of success he can have behind a much better blocking unit upfront.

 

 

Look at the space that Johnson got upfront before he cutback against the grain. This is something that we rarely saw from the Titans over the past three seasons. It is also something that came to define Johnson’s game during his stellar 2009 performance.

With Warmack and Levitre opening up holes at the line of scrimmage and Walker giving Johnson creases between the hashes, there is no reason to believe that we won’t see a lot of similar runs during the regular season. Give CJ2K a little space to run through and he immediately becomes one of the better running backs in the NFL.

Now if Jake Locker can do his part by providing some balance on offense, Johnson might be looking at a second career 2,000-yard season. It’s all up to Locker and the Titans receivers to help out Johnson through the air.

At the very least, the small sample size we saw this past weekend against Washington should open up some eyes. For the first time in years, Tennessee won’t have to rely on Johnson to be “its everything” on offense.

I, for one, am intrigued.

 

Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist at Bleacher Report.

Vincent is the head sports editor at eDraft, co-host of eDraft Sports Radio (which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. ET) and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus. He’s also the news director here at PFC and co-host of Football Debate Central with Ryan Riddle8:00-9:30 every Wednesday.