INDIANAPOLIS – Last week in Baltimore, the Colts had to contend with the rushing and receiving threat that running back Ray Rice posed.
This Sunday's challenge against Tennessee will hold a bit of the same challenge for the Indianapolis defense as well with the dual danger posed by running back Chris Johnson.
It is not uncommon to have such weekly obstacles to face, in fact, it is more the norm than the exception in the NFL. Johnson leads the Titans with 875 rushing yards on 217 attempts. He has four rushing touchdowns. He ranks second on the team with 45 receptions.
In his fourth season, Johnson has been a prime focus of any defense that has faced the Titans. Head Coach Jim Caldwell is aware of Johnson's abilities, and he believes the talented back is finding his groove in the running game.
"I think so. I think he's running well," said Caldwell on if he thinks Johnson is hitting full stride. "He's shown the speed that he's always possessed, and I think they're getting the ball to him a number of different ways. He's leading the team in rushing, obviously, but also he's second in receiving. They're getting it to him on check-downs, out in space. They're also using motion and emptying the backfield with him as well. They're still getting the ball to him on the outside once in a while. They're taking advantage of his skill set, and I think he's back in his groove."
Johnson has rushed for 130 or more yards in three of the last five games for Tennessee. He has had 23 or more rushing attempts in five games this season, including in three of the last five games. Johnson rushed for 1,228 yards as a rookie in 2008. He had 2,006 yards in 2009, then followed that with 1,364 rushing yards last season.
Johnson has receptions in each game in 2011 to further underscore his talents, and Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney knows getting to him quickly and in bunches is necessary this Sunday for Indianapolis.
"It's going to be a tough match up," said Freeney. "They're right in the playoff mix, so they're going to be coming out there hard. Chris (Johnson) is kind of rolling right now, so it's going to be important that we get 11 guys to him."
Johnson and his teammates are fighting for their playoff lives this Sunday. The Titans are 7-6 and are bunched in a tight playoff field. They trail the New York Jets by one game and are tied with Cincinnati and Oakland in the Wild Card hunt. There is no wiggle room for error for the Titans, and Johnson feels things are coming around after a year of highs and lows.
"I'm feeling it," said Johnson. "I've kind of been on the same page as my offensive linemen. We get the opportunity to run the ball, and if we're able to stay in our offense, then we pretty much can do some good things. It's been a lot of downs this year, but it's still a situation where we've got time to turn it around and get some positive things, and hopefully get a chance to make the playoffs.
"Basically we've got three division games in the Colts, Houston (Texans) and the (Jacksonville) Jaguars, so it's kind of like win or we're out of the playoffs. … Our playoffs have started, so every week is a must-win. If we lose to the Colts, then we might as well get ready to pack our stuff up at the end of the year. In order for us to get to where we want to go, we've got to start our playoffs right now. We've got three games to make it to the playoffs."
In the first meeting with the Titans this year, Indianapolis limited Johnson to 34 yards on 14 rushes. Johnson had 111 rushing yards in the first meeting with the Colts last year in Nashville, then the Colts held him to 39 yards in Lucas Oil Stadium in the season finale.
Johnson says while the Titans are aware of the Colts' struggles this year, they have no trouble focusing in on Sunday.
"It's human nature to know what their record and things like that, but still at the end of the day we have to go out and execute ourselves," said Johnson. "I'm not sure if it was the last week or the week before, but they put up a lot of points, and the game wasn't a blowout. It was a good game. It just shows you that they may have started off doing really bad, but they've been working all year and they've been playing better. It's a situation where we're not just going to be able to go out there, get off the bus and get the victory. We're going to have to practice hard all week and go in there and play a good game. Last game (against the Colts), I didn't have a real good game against them, so it's a situation where there is a little motivational chip on our shoulder where I want to do better than I did last game."
Mixed in with four 100 outings this year have been six games when Johnson has not rushed for at least 35 yards. He has not allowed those occasions to cause him concern, and he does shoot for numbers as well as victories.
"Of course, my confidence is never shaken," said Johnson. "I've always got great confidence, but I still feel as though no matter what this year turns out to be, I still feel like I'm the best back in the NFL. When I get an opportunity to get carries, run the ball, being on the same page with my linemen and things like that, I show the type of player that I am. It's just a situation where I can even say I'm overconfident, because I go into each game expecting to have a big day. That's why it may have made me a little more frustrated than most players, and I don't care if I have 80 yards, I still feel like I didn't have a good day. I'm not happy unless I'm over 100 (rushing yards) and we get a victory. There may be a lot of guys who come in and get 75, 80 or 90 yards and feel good about it, and feel like they had a good day. If I come out of the game with 99 yards, then I'm going to be upset, so it's just that I'm very confident in myself and I know the type of player I am."
Titans Head Coach Mike Munchak is trying to guide his first club into the playoffs. Munchak targets rushing the ball better against Indianapolis this time around. Johnson would be a good component for Munchak and the Titans.
"We haven't run very well against Indy in a while," said Munchak. "We were efficient last game, even though we won, but it wasn't anything over the top. We'd love to control the next three games by being able to run it, which is an obvious thing. He (Chris Johnson) is running well, he's into it and everything is positive as far as his health. There is no reason we can't run it, but we've just got to do a good job if we're going to win these three games, and we've got to win them to have a shot at the playoffs."