- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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A weekly look at a player whose performance must improve in 2011.
Chris Johnson was amazing in 2009. But that just wasn't the case last year. He certainly was not a liability or a bad player, but the Titans need to get him back to where he was two seasons ago. Was the drop in production all Johnson's fault? Not at all. His offensive line, especially on the interior, was not nearly as good. There was a lot of uncertainty at the quarterback position. The defense wasn't as sturdy, which affected field position and the number of snaps Tennessee played on offense. And frankly, the bar was set remarkably high for Johnson, whose yards per carry dropped by close to a yard and a half after an amazing 2009 season in which he broke off long runs at an amazing rate.
But now, former stud offensive lineman Mike Munchak is the Titans' new coach, and Bruce Matthews, who was also pretty good back in the day, takes over for Munchak as Tennessee's offensive line coach. These two do not have much of a coaching track record and we don't know how they will be in their new roles, but it is pretty safe to say that running the football and offensive line play in general will be a priority for the Titans.
That puts a lot of pressure on Johnson to carry this offense. Obviously, he is capable. And even though quarterback still appears to be a giant question mark in Tennessee, there are a few enticing pieces in place on offense. I firmly believe that Kenny Britt can be an elite wide receiver in this league, and he showed what he is capable of last season. Britt is still young but is progressing quickly. Every defensive coordinator must reckon with him. Another talented youngster, Jared Cook, is dripping with ability. Cook started to come on when given a chance to finish last season. These two, coupled with the other wideouts on the roster, should be more than enough to take pressure off Johnson. That is if the quarterback play is at least adequate, something that we just can't ignore at this point when analyzing Johnson's situation.
Johnson also can be a very dangerous receiving threat. If it is Kerry Collins or an early-draft-pick rookie behind center, using a dynamic safety-valve receiving threat such as Johnson could make the quarterback's job much easier -- and maturation more rapid, in the case of a rookie QB. Further developing and using Johnson's pass-catching skills should be a high priority for Munchak and company. But Johnson needs to pay more attention to his blitz pickup and pass-blocking as a whole to further develop into the all-around threat that he can be.
It is probably safe to say that improving the offensive line will be a priority, as well. David Stewart was a disappointment this year, but overall Tennessee's offensive tackles are proven. The interior needs a ton of work. In fact, as a whole, the Titans' run-blocking was among the very worst in the NFL last year, including FB Ahmard Hall. Considering his size and the number of touches he has logged over the past two seasons, lessening Johnson's workload could pay off. But again, Johnson is not without some blame, too. When watching him on tape, it is easy to see he relied too much on trying to break off a long run or finding a gaping cut-back lane that was rarely there. At times, he needed to get what was there and grind out some tough yards, but that doesn't really exploit Johnson's explosive skill set.
Things need to change with the Titans' offense. There will be a new head coach and offensive coordinator and probably changes of some sort at quarterback. But it all starts with Johnson.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.
Chris Johnson must return to 2009 form for the Tennessee Titans to improve, writes Matt Williamson.