When Adrian Peterson joined the NFL in 2007, it was widely accepted that LaDainian Tomlinson was the premier running back in the league. It took Peterson only about a month to start the debate as to who was the better running back. By the end of his rookie season, there was no debate. A.P. was the man.
In 2008, Chris Johnson entered the league and made an immediate impact. As a rookie, he rushed for 1,228 yards and, given his explosive speed, he started drawing comparisons with Peterson as to who was now the top running back. In many circles, Johnson took over that distinction in 2009, when he rushed for 2,006 yards, caught 50 passes for 503 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. Then things started to take a turn for the worse.
While his numbers dropped in 2010 – by 650 yards rushing, 250 receiving and a decrease of 1.3 yards per rushing attempt – Johnson was still at the top of the NFL rushing lists and viewed as being equal to or slightly better than Peterson. But, when he held out in 2011 to get a new contract, he never fully regained his form from his first three seasons. He set career lows for yardage (1,047), rushing average (4.0 yards a carry), longest run (48 yards) and touchdowns (4). While still extremely dangerous, teams were finding ways to bottle him up. In 2009, Johnson had 12 100-yard rushing games, including each of the final 11 games. In 2011, he had four 100-yard rushing games and was held to less than 65 yards rushing in each of the other 12 games. His season rushing average was 4.0, but he averaged less than that in 10 of the 16 games he played.
The downward trend has carried over into the 2012 season as well. Johnson is averaging just 3.2 yards a carry with a long run of 19 yards, but, coming off a 25-carry, 141-yard performance against Houston last week, he is as he always is, the focus of defensive attention from the Vikings.
"He's a guy you have to focus on," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He has incredible speed and can get through a hole very fast. If you don't maintain your position and fill your gap responsibilities, he is capable of making a big play at any time."
Teams have routinely been sliding one or both of their safeties into the box to stop Johnson from having an impact. Vikings safety Harrison Smith said that the added attention given to Johnson is needed, but that everyone on the defense has to work in unison to keep him from breaking free and making a huge play.
"It's just about knowing what your fit is and playing with your help," Smith said of safeties helping in run defense to contain Johnson. "He's faster than I am. I don't want to be in a foot race with him. But I know where my other guys are at and I know where I'm supposed to fit. I'm confident in my athletic ability to make plays."
Johnson's ineffectiveness early was part his own doing and part the Titans' struggles. Their three losses came by totals of 21, 28 and 24 points and at times the Tennessee offense has been forced to abandon the run. In his first three games, Johnson had just 33 carries and gained just 45 yards. Of those carries, only four of them gained five yards or more, 11 of them gained zero or one yard and eight of them saw Johnson brought down for a loss.
Teams have designed defenses around preventing Johnson from being a factor and, for the first three games, it worked.
"The key to him is keeping him contained and boxed in," defensive tackle Fred Evans said. "He's very elusive and, when he gets in space, he can do some big things. He has world-class speed. You don't see many guys that run that fast with a ball in their hand. He's a different kind of beast. If everyone ran a 4.2 (40-yard dash) and moved like that it would be different, but he's a rarity."
Johnson's production changed last week. Going up against the Houston Texans, the league's top-rated defense, the Titans committed to the run game and Johnson responded. He carried 25 times for 141 yards and, after having just four of his first 33 carries gain five or more yards in his first three games, he had 16 carries of five or more yards last week. If that didn't get the Vikings attention, nothing will.
Defensive end Jared Allen said the Titans committed to running game after falling far behind and having starting QB Jake Locker injured, but he said the key to stopping Johnson is getting to him before he gets up to speed.
"He's explosive. With any good back you face, you have to stop them before they start. You can't let him get into space and think you're going to tackle him," Allen said. "We need to hit him in the backfield; we need to bottle him up. If you can do that, then you can shut him down. Other than that, he has the ability to hit that edge, turn the corner and be gone."
The Vikings' defensive mantra is always to stop the run first and make an opponent one-dimensional on offense. While Johnson hasn't approached the dominance he displayed in 2009, he is dangerous and the Vikings know it. As they prepare to face him Sunday, they're going to commit a lot of attention to having everyone on the defense chase down Johnson when he gets his hands on the ball. Defensive tackle Letroy Guion said it will require a full team effort, but that is what other teams have done to stop him and, when teams commit to thwarting Johnson, they can be successful.
"He's unbelievably fast and if we don't pursue and get to him, he can hurt us," Guion said. "We're going to have to all be running at him to keep him contained. If all 11 of us get to him, there aren't too many places he can go."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Defense still respects RB Johnson's speed
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