The Key: Containing Chris Johnson
As has been the case since he entered the league in 2008, the Titans’ offensive output has been is a direct reflection of the performance of their running back. Johnson has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his five previous NFL seasons, though his current pace is just shy of the 1,000-yard plateau. After piling up 90 yards on the ground twice in the Titans’ first three games, Johnson averaged just 29 yards per game over the last three weeks—all Titans losses. Johnson has yet to score a rushing touchdown in 2013, though he has reached the end zone twice as a receiver.
In his last game against St. Louis, in 2009, Johnson ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. He also caught three passes for 69 yards and a touchdown in that game.
“He’s a home run threat every time he touches the ball,” defensive coordinator Tim Walton said at his Thursday press conference. “He can get on the perimeter, get on the edge. If you give him a crease, he has the ability to, obviously, take it the distance every time, so we have to be really gap sound. We have to be fundamentally on point with the stuff that we do, and we have to keep him corralled and keep him from getting on the edge of our defense.”
The Answer: True to form, Johnson was the leading force behind the Tennessee offense on Sunday. Johnson looked nothing like a back that had yet to eclipse 100 yards on the ground this season, finishing with a season-best 150 yards on 23 carries. He also scored two of the Titans’ four rushing touchdowns. He provided the game’s deciding score when he scampered 19 yards to the end zone following the Rams’ second turnover of the afternoon.
One week removed from limiting Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch to just 23 yards on the ground, the Rams were unable to muster a similar result against Johnson.
The Key: Revived Red-Zone Offense
After beginning the year as one of the league’s most proficient teams in this area, the Rams have seen their scoring rate regress considerably during the past two weeks. Part of the recent struggles can be attributed to the transition at quarterback, according to Head Coach Jeff Fisher, in addition to the team’s last three games being against the league’s top three defensive units.
“First off, (it was) Kellen’s first attempt at it, and so that’s going to be a reason,” Fisher said at his Tuesday news conference. “I’ll just have to go back to Houston being (No.) 1, Carolina being (No.) 3 and Seattle being (No.) 2 in the league in defense. That makes it hard, so that’s something we’re going to continue to work on.”
Tennessee represents the first defense that is not ranked in the league’s top five units since Week 5 against Jacksonville, as they rank 13th overall and 22nd in red zone scoring defense.
The Answer: Buoyed by a strong rushing attack and an encouraging step forward by QB
The Key: Build Upon the Ground Game
On the strength of a career-best performance on the ground by RB Zac Stacy, the Rams eclipsed 200 rushing yards against Seattle, who entered the game as the league’s second-best defensive unit. Since taking over as the team’s lead back Stacy has averaged 86 rushing yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. That level of play has diverted a great deal of defensive attention away from a passing attack that attempted 38 or more passes in each of the Rams’ first four games.
“I think we’ve found an awfully good tailback in Zac Stacy,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said at his Thursday press conference. “The line’s doing a heck of a job. That front we just played is really good – eight-man front, a lot of movement. They’re all parked down in there. We’ll see the same this week, so it’ll be a good challenge for us. I think a couple weeks ago when we started talking about balance and getting back to the running game, the last four games we’ve done a really, really good job with the running game. It starts with the way we’ve started practicing. We’ve adjusted some things. You saw maybe some 9-on-7, things like that we’ve gone back to, and the guys have just bought into it. We’re awfully proud of where we’re at with the run game.”
The Answer: Sunday produced an increasingly familiar performance from Stacy. The rookie put together perhaps his best all-purpose showing to date against Tennessee, finishing with 127 yards rushing on 27 carries to go along with a career-high 51 receiving yards on six receptions. His day was punctuated with a pair of rushing touchdowns, the Rams’ first two scores on the ground this year.
“Since he’s started, he’s leading the league in rushing over that span, and that’s a credit to everybody up front,” Fisher said. “He takes care of himself, and he’s a very instinctive runner and he’s a smart runner. He understands running the football, and he’s powerful.”