FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Whatever Chris Johnson the New England Patriots face in their season opener against Tennessee, they know that stopping him is the biggest challenge they will face.
Whether they see the guy from three years ago when Johnson ran for more than 2,000 yards, or from last season, when after he missed all of training camp the running back labored through a trying season yet still eclipsed 1,000 yards, the Patriots defense will face a big threat.
Titans quarterback Jake Locker, on the other hand, poses a different kind of problem. There is not nearly as much film to study on the second-year quarterback from Washington, known more for his legs than his arm.
The Patriots, however, are preparing for both.
“A lot of people talk about his legs, but he can also throw the ball,” linebacker Jerod Mayo said Thursday. “He can make every throw on the field, he’s a talented guy and it will take a group effort to stop him. It will take the pass rush, it will take the coverage, it will take it all.”
While Johnson has already showcased his playmaking ability, topping 1,000 yards on the ground in each of his first four seasons in the NFL, it is Locker who is the wild card in Tennessee’s potentially potent offense.
The No. 8 pick in the 2011 draft played in just five games last season in a reserve role and completed 34 of 66 passes for 542 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions.
He went 31 of 60 for 316 yards with two touchdowns and one interception this preseason, and ran six times for 57 yards. He won the starting job over veteran Matt Hasselbeck.
Titans coach Mike Munchak isn’t the least bit concerned with Locker’s lack of experience, citing his ability to scramble as the primary reason.
“Being a young quarterback, there’s no doubt that he’s going to see things week in and week out that he has not seen before. He could get fooled, just like all quarterbacks do, but probably more so with being a young quarterback,” Munchak said.
“The advantage then is the fact that he can move around the pocket if he does miss something, or if he does get confused, he has the ability to move around and make plays, extend plays. That just adds an element that at least if he does make some mistakes, he has a chance to make up for it with his ability to get out of the pocket. That’s hard for a defense.”
The Titans last season finished 17th in the league in total offense with 335.1 yards per game, and 31st in rushing yards, totaling less than 90 yards a game. That’s a far cry from just two seasons ago, when Johnson’s breakout performance spearheaded a rushing attack that ranked second in the league with 162 yards a game.
Despite a down year from Johnson last season, when he ran for 1,047 yards and just four touchdowns, both career lows, the Patriots are still focused on stopping the speedy and shifty superstar.
New England still remembers him shredding opposing defenses in 2009 for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, and catching 50 passes for another 503 yards and two scores. They saw Johnson’s versatility up close that year, too, as he ran for 128 yards against a Patriots defense that embarrassed the Titans in a 59-0 blowout, the last time these teams met.
“You have to play against him for 60 minutes,” Mayo said. “It was a down year for him, but it was still a good year, especially in the fourth quarter. He would break a lot of runs in the fourth quarter. You have to stay focused on him. It’s going to take 11 guys, and that’s our goal.”
The game plan, Mayo said, is gang-tackling and ensuring that one player isn’t assigned to slowing someone he couldn’t compare to anyone else in the league.
“He can break tackles, he’s fast — super fast — he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He just does it all,” he said. “There’s not too many guys out there like that.”
New England nose tackle Vince Wilfork also isn’t overlooking Locker, yet seemed just as concerned with Johnson’s dynamic skills.
“Probably one of the best backs in the league, can hurt you anywhere, in the passing game and the running game, and the offensive line’s been playing well together,” Wilfork said. “I think they have a complete offense, and we’re going to have our hands full, no question about it.”