Originally posted on Fox Sports Tennessee  |  Last updated 11/20/11
ATLANTA -- With about seven minutes left in the second quarter, the Tennessee Titans ran a sweep to the right. It seemed like Atlanta's pursuing defenders weren't sufficiently stretched and All-Pro Chris Johnson was going to jet through one of the cracks and break off a long run. But then, smack, before Johnson could even get 3 yards, safety John Sanders leveled him. The Titans fell to the Falcons 23-17, making a trip to the playoffs tough to conjure. There were many factors, of course like a lack of discipline. An exasperated Nate Washington said, "Ten penalties in the game? You're not going to beat no Atlanta Falcons like that." Michael Turner rumbled all over the field for 100 game-dictating yards. The Titans secondary got a healthy dose of Matt Ryan and Roddy White. But the most troubling and perplexing issue facing Tennessee is the Chris Johnson Problem. Johnson has spent the whole season in a bottle and it might be the most puzzling development in the league this season, right up there with "How can the Broncos win games with Tim Tebow throwing half of his passes at hot dog vendors?" Just last week, Johnson rushed for 130 yards in a Titans win over Carolina and seemed on the verge of a midseason breakout, cracking the 100-yard barrier for just the second time this season. And then you get games like this 12-carry, 13-yard debacle against the Falcons one of the stingiest run defenses in the NFL. The loss to the Falcons was indicative of the season, one where Tennessee ranks last in the NFL for rushing. Houston, Denver and Philadelphia have all doubled the Titans' run output this season. It's almost unbelievable, except it's really happening. Johnson had 6 yards on his second carry, then didn't gain more than 3 yards on any carry for the rest of the game. And it's going to be an ongoing problem for the Titans because nobody appears to be able to diagnose why it's happening. "I'm looking at the film," said Johnson, "and I'm doing all the right things, but it's just not turning out right. We are not executing." "Very disappointing. I thought we were going to run much better than we did," said coach Mike Munchak. "We've tried to diagnose it for a long time. We had some negative runs. We didn't really threaten with any type of runs, at all." "We're very inconsistent right now," added Johnson. Unfortunately, you can't really call the Titans run game inconsistent. Actually, it's pretty consistent. It's just consistently bad. It is some kind of wonder, then, that Tennessee staged a late-game mini-comeback. Down 23-3 late in the third quarter, Titans first-round raft pick Jake Locker came in for Matt Hasselbeck who left the game with an sprained elbow and energized a desperate Titans offense working against a prevent Falcons defense. He scrambled, improvised and hooked up with Washington for two late scores. It briefly made what looked like a sure Falcons win seem tenuous. "He brought a little spark," said Washington. "He brought us back in the game," said Munchak. "You saw what you saw from a guy that's been waiting a long time to get on the field." Locker wasn't exactly effusive, but the rookie didn't bother trying to downplay his first regular-season action. "It was a lot of fun," he said. "I would have liked a better outcome, but it was just fun to get out there and compete." Locker went 9-for-19 for 140 yards, but, after helping close the Falcons lead to 23-17, he didn't get a chance to finish the comeback. The Falcons methodically ate up the last three minutes doing exactly what the Titans couldn't running the ball. Locker actually outgained Johnson for the game with his 17-yard scramble. Getting back to Johnson, one thing is for sure what he's going through isn't unprecedented, at all. Look at the NFL's list of all-time single season rushing leaders. Other than Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith and a few other legends, you won't see many repeats. Baltimore's Jamaal Lewis gained 2,066 in his third season; then 1,006 and 906. In 2003, Green Bay's Ahman Green lit it up for 1,883. After that he went for 1,163 and 1,059. Shaun Alexander had 1,880 yards in 2005, then 896 and 716. Ricky Williams ran for 1,853 in his first season with Miami, then 1,372, then 743 and then "Ricky Williams stuff" like cannabis sabbaticals started happening. Jamal Anderson had 1,846 yards on the ground for the Falcons in their Dirty Bird run to the Super Bowl. He was hurt the next year, came back and rushed for 1,024 and that was basically it for his career. You see the trend? If Johnson and Titans fans want a glimmer of hope, however, they can look to Indianapolis' Edgerrin James, who gained 1,553 and 1,709 yards in his first two seasons, followed by an injury in 2001 and a subpar 2002. Then he regained his old form and rushed for over 1,500 yards in 2004 and 2005. He got his swagger back. The Titans are now 5-5 on the verge of dropping out of the wild-card race. Their No. 1 receiver (Kenny Britt) is out for the season, Hasselbeck's throwing elbow is injured things don't look well. They need Chris Johnson a guy that used to be one of the league's scariest weapons to get his swagger back.
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