GREEN BAY—Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson isn’t the 2,000-yard rusher of a few years back, but rest assured he has the Packers’ attention.
“Did you see the ‘Monday Night Football’ game?” Mike McCarthy said this week. “He looks like he can still run to me.”
McCarthy was referring to Johnson’s 94-yard scamper for a touchdown that helped the Titans beat the Jets just a few days ago. It’s the longest run in the NFL this season.
That makes three TD runs of 80 yards or more for Johnson this season, and it’s that big-play capability that has the Packers on guard as the player many refer to as the fastest in the NFL makes his Lambeau Field regular-season debut on Sunday.
“He can do anything. He can hit the A gap and take it 90 yards, or he can hit the sideline and take it up,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “It’s going to be tough.”
Johnson was at his best at midseason this year, averaging 142.5 yards per game and an eye-popping 7.2 per carry over a four-game stretch from Weeks 7-10. That’s when he had his other two 80-plus-yard TDs.
Since then, he hadn’t gone over 100 yards in a game until this past Monday, when he had his 94-yarder, though he had just 28 yards on his other 20 carries.
The Packers have faced Johnson only once, during his rookie season of 2008 (pictured). He had 89 yards rushing with a TD and added 72 yards receiving in a 19-16 Tennessee overtime win.
But that was so long ago, it was before Johnson became a household name and before Dom Capers took over the Packers defense. Much more relevant is how the Packers are defending the run lately, and the key has been the unit’s adjustments.
Two weeks ago against Detroit, the Lions rushed 15 times for 85 yards on their opening two drives, which led to touchdowns, but the Packers tightened up and held them to just 50 yards on 17 carries after that.
Similarly, last week in Chicago, the Bears ran seven times for 40 yards on their opening drive but managed just 43 yards on 16 rushes thereafter.
“Teams tend to game plan, scheme us a lot, but our adaptability is second to none,” said inside linebacker Brad Jones, who is becoming a main cog against the run and has earned significant praise from McCarthy lately.
“We see what’s coming, we reload on the sideline, and I think nobody misses a beat. ‘We know what’s going on, we’ve got it, let’s go,’ and we can shut teams down.”
It helped the run defense to get Clay Matthews back last week. Matthews gets more attention for his pass rushing ability, but his teammates marvel just as much at his plays in the run game.
Last week, Matthews twice tackled Chicago’s Matt Forte in the backfield for losses, and he had disruptive penetration on other occasions, too.
“We’re a different run defense when he’s out there,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said of Matthews. “He sets the edges, he uses his quickness to make plays in the backfield. I think he’s unbelievable as a run player.”
Come playoff time, the Packers might also get back defensive end C.J. Wilson, who has missed the last three games with a knee injury.
Wilson was hoping he’d return in time for this week’s game, because Johnson is a former college teammate of his from East Carolina. The pair played two seasons together (2006-07) before entering the NFL two years apart.
“It’s been my dream to go hit this guy,” Wilson said playfully, with a big smile on his face. “We couldn’t hit him in practice (in college) because he wore the red jersey. You don’t want to hit your star player, but now that he’s on the opposing team, I’d like to take my shot at him.”
Big shots on speedy backs like Johnson can be hard to come by, so the Packers just need to contain the home-run hitter. Three weeks ago, the Packers allowed three long runs, including an 82-yard TD, to Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson as he racked up 210 yards on the day.
Johnson isn’t going for 2,000 yards again like Peterson is this year, but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous.
“A lot of times you play backs where you can make mistakes and you can recover,” Pickett said. “But him, like Adrian Peterson, they’re backs that if you make a mistake, they make you pay for it.” Additional coverage - Dec. 20