Is the running game for the Tennessee Titans finally fixed?
That question was posed to Coach Mike Munchak on Monday, a day after Chris Johnson rolled to a season-high 190 yards on the ground in a 23-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
"Two of the last three weeks we have run the ball pretty well. The one in between wasn't what we would like in Atlanta (12 carries 13 yards for Johnson)," Munchak said. "I think we are thinking that we are heading in the right direction. We would rather be running the ball well now than in the beginning of the season, so we will look at it that way. We think we are doing a lot better things now than we had been earlier in the season. We need these next five weeks to be our best games that we have had."
"It felt good to finally get out there and get to some open space and make some plays," said Johnson, who had the third-best rushing day of his NFL career on Sunday.
It didn't hurt that the Titans played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who ranked next to last in overall defense coming into the game. And it didn't hurt that the game was played in extremely sloppy conditions with a cold, steady rain pouring down throughout the contest.
Still, the Titans will take such a performance that has been rare this season.
"We knew it was there, and that Chris is capable. It hasn't really been him the whole time; it's been all of us. But we're capable of doing it, and he's capable of doing it and we showed that today," guard Jake Scott said. Of course, the question as to whether the Titans' running game is finally fixed can only be answered over the remaining five games of the season.
"It's just one game," Johnson said. "We've got five more games to go. So it's a situation where I just want to be consistent to finish out this year going up, standing up, keep going on ... I just want to be consistent."
Johnson went over 100 yards in a game for just the third time this season, and the Titans will need him and the offensive line to be more consistent over those final five weeks if they are to make any sort of run toward a playoff spot.
Tennessee remains two games out of the AFC South lead behind the Houston Texans, who are having issues of their own with injuries at the quarterback position. The Titans at 6-5 also stand just one game out of a wild-card berth in the jumbled AFC with next Sunday's game in Buffalo another must-win situation, much like the game against Tampa Bay on Sunday.
WR Damian Williams made a nice grab on an improvised fourth-and-2 touchdown catch that put the Titans ahead for good with 3:01 to play in the game. Williams ran the back line of the end zone, waving his arms for Matt Hasselbeck to throw it to him after the Bucs had the original play diagnosed with a zone defense.
"You've always got to be cognizant of the back line, even in just running your route, because if you step out and come back in and catch it, it's dead," said Williams, who was waving his arms frantically beneath the goal post trying to get Hasselbeck's attention. "When I saw the replay, it did kind of scare me, but in the game, I knew that I was open. I was fortunate that it worked out."
Titans K Rob Bironas was three of four on field goals Sunday, but had his streak of 14 straight snapped by missing his first attempt of the day. He then rebounded to make three more field goals to start a new streak.
Rookie CB Tommie Campbell showed his speed by taking a handoff from Marc Mariani and going 84 yards for a touchdown against the Bucs. It was a play the Titans practiced all week in hopes of taking advantage of Tampa Bay's pursuit.
"We knew it was coming," said Campbell, a seventh-round pick from Indiana, Pa. "We knew they covered the field pretty strongly and once I got the handoff, I didn't see anybody outside, and I knew I was going to score a touchdown. I was like, catch me if you can. ... I saw a dude and when I looked at him, I knew he wasn't going to catch me, so I just kept running."
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
LB Barrett Ruud is still suffering from a groin injury and may not play this week vs. the Bills.
T David Stewart might be able to return to practice this week after missing Sunday's game with a calf injury.
LB Colin McCarthy had another strong game with 10 tackles, a fumble recovery and his first career interception on Sunday.
DE Dave Ball made a nice impact in his return from a concussion with two sacks, a forced fumble and fumble recovery.
TE Jared Cook was OK after suffering concussion-like symptoms on Sunday. Cook passed his concussion test on Monday and is expected to play this week vs. Buffalo.
REPORT CARD VS. BUCCANEERS
PASSING OFFENSE: C - Matt Hasselbeck was picked off twice, including a pick-six by Aqib Talib. He salvaged something at the end with a fourth-down TD pass to Damian Williams to win it.
RUSHING OFFENSE: A - A week after their worst effort of the season, the Titans turned in a gem as Chris Johnson ran for 190 yards on 23 carries, something the Titans had been looking for all season.
PASS DEFENSE: B - The Titans kept the Bucs Josh Freeman off balance for the most part, limiting him to 199 yards passing, giving up one TD and getting one interception.
RUSH DEFENSE: C - LeGarrette Blount made his homecoming to Tennessee a good one, rushing for 103 yards. However, the Titans saved face by forcing a pair of fumbles from Blount.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A - The 84-yard run for a TD by Tommie Campbell got the Titans off to a great start and was a good call by special teams coach Alan Lowry and assistant Chet Parlavecchio.
COACHING: A-minus - It was sloppy at times and the Titans needed a fourth-quarter rally, but Mike Munchak showed guts not only with the kickoff trickery for a TD, but also going for it on fourth down at the 2-yard line for what proved to be the winning touchdown.