With a league-high five offensive touchdowns of at least 50 yards since 2008, the Tennessee Titans running back is the NFL’s most dynamic scorer, and he can quite literally find the end zone from anywhere on the field. His 91-yard rushing touchdown against the Houston Texans in Week 2 is the longest in the league since October 2006, and with an NFL-record 4.24-second 40-yard dash at the 2008 draft combine, Johnson boasts, "I guess I’m the fastest guy in the NFL right now."
So, that’s what the New England Patriots are concerned about when they host the Titans on Sunday afternoon.
"When he has the ball in his hands, everybody is at the point of attack," Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork said. "It’s going to be a tough one for us. We have to play, and we have to step up."
While the Titans are winless in five games, it’s not because of a lack of contributions from Johnson, who leads the NFL with 594 yards from scrimmage and is averaging 6.3 yards per touch. The speedy back showed just how dangerous he can be with 197 rushing yards, 87 receiving yards and three touchdowns against the Texans earlier this season.
"I have great expectations," said Johnson, who was the 24th overall draft pick in 2008. "I expect myself to do things and make plays like that every game. I just feel if I get the ball in my hands, like every time, I can make big plays."
Johnson’s explosiveness can even catch a defense off guard because the Titans also use LenDale White as a power back between the tackles. White is a bigger, bruising running back with far less speed, so when he is replaced by Johnson, it has a similar effect as a batter adjusting to Daniel Bard’s fastball after looking at Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball.
Defenses are putting eight and nine players in the box to limit Johnson’s rushing ability, and they’re even double-teaming him when he leaves the backfield during passing plays. Several Patriots defensive players even said they’ll make a point to find out which Titans running back is in the game when they break the huddle, which is likely a commonly used practice across the league.
Yet, the East Carolina product is still finding ways to burn them. Even if defenses succeed for three quarters, a simple breakdown can lead to another one of Johnson’s lightning strikes.
"You have to stay in your zone all the time," Patriots linebacker Junior Seau said. "You’ve got to be disciplined and know all the gaps. Everyone needs to fill their gaps and play from there. When you have a fast running back like Chris, you know that if he gets outside of you, he’s going to burn. Not many players in the league can catch him."
Johnson’s 1,228 rushing yards in 2008 ranked third in franchise history among rookies, and of his 14 career touchdowns, including one in the postseason, eight have put the Titans in the lead. Also, eight of his touchdowns have come from at least 10 yards and seven have been from longer than 20 yards. He has five career 100-yard rushing games and he’s had at least 100 yards from scrimmage on seven occasions.
"They understand that if he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a missed tackle away from going the distance," Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said of opposing defenses. "He had a great rookie year, and thus far he’s off to a great start."