The Chicago Bears are ranked second in the NFL against the run, giving up just 77.9 yards per game. Maurice Jones-Drew was a tough test against Jacksonville, but other than that, Chicago's defense has not faced a truly elite running back through their first seven games.
The group's biggest challenge so far this season will come Sunday afternoon against the Tennessee Titans and All-Pro running back Chris Johnson. He's a shifty ball carrier with blazing speed – he ran a 4.24 at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2008.
"Chris Johnson is a homerun hitter," Lance Briggs said today. "Any time he gets some daylight he's a threat to score a touchdown, right now. If he gets to our second level untouched, it's going to be tough to get him."
Johnson had one of the greatest seasons for a running back in league history in 2009, rushing for 2,006 yards, averaging a robust 5.6 yards per carry. He followed that up with a 1,300-yard campaign in 2010 and the chose to hold out for more money. It was a smart move, as the Titans rewarded him with a four-year extension worth $53.5 million.
Since then he has struggled. Last year he rushed for only 1,047 yards, 4.0 yards per carry and four touchdowns, all career lows. He lumbered out of the gates again this season, rushing for 24 yards or fewer in four of Tennessee's first five games.
Yet recently, Johnson has regained his once-dominant form. He has rushed for 91 or more yards in four of his last five games, including an 18-carry, 195-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 7.
Earlier this season, Johnson was hesitant approaching the line of scrimmage, dancing far too often in the backfield. He has recently adopted an attack mentality, hitting his holes hard and with authority, and it's paying off.
"He's getting back to his form now," said Brian Urlacher. "They're trying to run the ball more. Whenever he gets the ball, he can go the distance. We just have to get in our gaps and run to the football, like we always do."
Therein lies the key to stopping Johnson: staying disciplined. When Chicago is at its best against the run, everyone plays gap-control football, staying home and plugging holes. They struggle when they are over-aggressive in ball pursuit, which can often lead to dangerously wide cutback lanes. With Johnson's speed, those types of cutback lanes could result in massive, game-changing touchdowns.
"He's a good running back," Urlacher said. "If there's a hole there, he's going to find it and hit it fast. We just have get in our gaps. That's our game plan every week: get in our gaps, run through our gaps and try to get into the backfield and make him change directions so we can get more guys to the football."
The Bears have been stout all season against the run, with each man flying to the ball and gang tackling. It has been fun to watch but Johnson presents a different challenge than Steven Jackson, Donald Brown, Cedric Benson and the other mediocre backs the unit has faced already this year. Up to this point, a missed assignment against an opposing running back meant a 10-20 yard gain. Against Johnson, a false step could lead to 80-yard gashes.
Those big plays could also come in the passing game, where Johnson is just as big of a threat. He's caught 43 or more passes in each of his four seasons in the league. If he gets in space and makes a few defenders miss, particularly on screen passes, he's gone.
"We just have to get up the field. We need to be very disruptive," said Briggs. "We've got to get our hands on him; got to hit him. And when we get our hands on him, we've got to bring him down."
In Johnson's only career game against the Bears – a 21-14 Titans victory in 2008 – the Bears held him to eight yards on 14 carries. Yet Johnson has matured as a runner and has the potential to single-handedly break the back of an opposing defense.
The Bears enter a tough stretch of games following the Titans, including back-to-back contests against the Houston Texans and San Francisco 49ers in Week 10 and 11 respectively. It could be very easy for them to look past Tennessee, a 3-5 club with little hope of making the playoffs, toward the tougher opponents just around the corner.
If that happens and they take the Titans too lightly, Johnson will make them pay.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.