Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 11/18/11
The Atlanta Falcons are a "dome" team and the Tennessee Titans play in an outdoor stadium, but there might not be a player in the NFL more suited to playing indoors than Titans running back Chris Johnson, one the league's fastest players and best open-field runners. "I know for sure it won't be cold outside or whatever," Johnson said on Wednesday of this week's match-up and venue, the Atlanta Falcons and the Georgia Dome. "I don't have to worry about rain. Playing in a dome, you always have a fast surface." Johnson, the former 2,000-yard rusher who is on pace for by far the least productive season in his four as a pro, is coming off his best game of the year. In a 30-3 win at Carolina last week, he rushed for 130 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries and also totaled 44 receiving yards on four receptions. It marked only the second 100-yard game of the 2011 campaign for Johnson, who began training camp as a holdout, a lengthy process that ended shortly before the start of the season with the Titans awarding him a 53.5-million contract. The question now is whether Johnson finally is back on track or whether the performance represented an aberration. The meeting in Atlanta is pivotal for both teams, which enter with identical 5-4 records and playoff aspirations. Johnson said after last week's game that he and head coach Mike Munchak talked about putting a new psychological perspective on the season one that could benefit Johnson and create problems for opponents like Atlanta. "Me and coach Munchak said these next eight games, it's a new season," Johnson said. "So we're in a new season right now and, basically, just trying to make this new season the best part of this whole season." The Falcons are relatively a middle-of-the-pack team defensively, but their rushing defense is tied for the third in the league, allowing 90.3 yards per game. Like Tennessee, their philosophy is to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Falcons head coach Mike Smith, a former defensive coordinator, gave reporters a lesson this week in "leverage" a concept that he said is critical to preventing Johnson from breaking one of his trademark long touchdown runs. The last outside defender the "force" defender -- must keep Johnson on his inside shoulder, Smith said, and every other player must keep Johnson on his outside shoulder. The other rule, Smith said, is never to follow your own man in pursuit of the ballcarrier. Notoriously tight-lipped middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said he didn't notice anything different about the way Johnson hits the holes this year a criticism of him during his struggles. "I mean, I'm not a running back," Lofton said. "I just know how to stop 'em." For his part, Munchak shed a bit more light on the situation, although he said the Titans never quite put their finger on exactly what the problem was. "We tried a lot of things," Munchak said. "It wasn't just, obviously, all him. He's a part of us not having success. Some of it was the teams we've played against, the defenses we faced. Some of it was us getting behind in some of those games and him only getting 10, 12 carries. "So there's a lot of factors built in there. Things weren't blocked as well. He wasn't hitting (the hole) quite the same from not having training camp. So there's a lot of intangibles like that and some bad luck. When things don't quite fall your way, there's some of that going on, too." To expand a little on what Munchak said, the Titans so far have faced rushing defenses ranked as follows in the NFL: No. 2 (Cincinnati), 3 (Baltimore, which is tied with Atlanta), 5 (Houston), 7 (Pittsburgh), 14 (Jacksonville) and 15 (Denver). That's a daunting task for any offense. During Johnson's struggles, Munchak had talked about continually feeding him the ball in the hope of breaking him out of his slump, a chance the Titans didn't always have. Johnson had only 26 yards on 10 carries at halftime, but the Titans led 17-0 and had plenty of opportunity to let him run in the second. "I think it helped us as a whole," said Titans tight end Jared Cook, a graduate of metro Atlanta's North Gwinnett High. "In the second half this year we've been struggling to get things going. I think that answered a lot of problems in what we need to do. We can't have a lull in the third quarter. Strike iron fast. "Like coach Munchak said, get CJ the ball. Get on our blockers, get downfield so that we can come up with some second half points early." The Titans now hope that they have something to build on and that their struggles are behind them. "He's definitely has always been a big part of what we do and the first part of his season was kind of hard, dealing with a lot of questions why that wasn't better why he wasn't doing better than he was," Munchak said. "I think last week was a good start in the right direction. We were able to gave him a lot of touches with the ball I think when you get a back like him, just like (Atlanta's Michael) Turner, if they'll get 20 to 25 touches with the ball, they'll do good things and he did. "Again, for us to win our division and have success, he needs to be a big part of it, so last week is what we hope to continue the rest of this season."
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