Titans’ run-first plan set to benefit Chris Johnson

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — First-year offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains vows the Tennessee Titans will feature a run-first offense in 2013 for the simplest of reasons. That’s what his bosses – general manager Ruston Webster and head coach Mike Munchak – are expecting to see happen.

“The head coach and general manager around here think only three things happen when you throw the football,” Loggains said with a laugh, “and two of them are bad.”

The renewed emphasis on the ground game should be music to the ears of sixth-year running back Chris Johnson, who is trying to return to the form that netted him 2,006 yards in 2009, his second season. Since then, his best season was 1,364 yards in 2010, but he dropped to a career-low 1,047 in 2011.

Last season, Johnson gained a respectable 1,243 yards. 

But in half the games, he was held to 56 yards rushing or less. His breakaway speed had seemingly slowed by a tick or two, and the offensive line was decimated by injuries.

“The first thing we talked about with the offense when we met with them the first time (this year) was that we want to be able to run the ball when we want to and when we need to,” said Loggains, the team’s former quarterbacks coach who became interim offensive coordinator when Chris Palmer was fired in late November.

“The commitment that Ruston and (Munchak) made to rebuilding the interior offensive line was a big part of that,” he added.

Thus, the free-agency signing of former Buffalo Bills guard Andy Levitre and drafting of Alabama guard Chance Warmack with the No. 10 overall pick. The Titans also drafted California center Brian Schwenke in the fourth round to compete with veteran Fernando Velasco. The tackles are set with veterans Michael Roos on the left and David Stewart on the right.

“This is the first time since I have been here that I have seen Tennessee really step up like that as far as free agency and getting so many guys,” said Johnson, who joined fellow Titans veterans last week for the first round of OTA (organized team activities). The rookies reported last weekend, and the entire squad will be working together this week as part of a six-week off-season program.

“There have been years where we got only one or two guys through free agency,” Johnson added. “But this year, we got a dozen guys through free agency to solidify things, and then we got some great draft picks. It is something to look forward to.”

One addition of note was the free-agency signing of former New York Jets running back Shonn Greene, who rushed for 2,117 yards the past two seasons. Just how Johnson and Greene will be used will be determined on a game-by-game basis, according to Loggains.

For Johnson, though, the situation is simple. He is the lead back and should get the lion’s share of carries. 

“Everybody needs a backup running back,” Johnson said. “I am sure they see a lot of good things in (Greene). Hopefully, he can come in and help this team. I don’t know.”

Loggains confirmed that Johnson is still “the guy” at running back, but the addition of Greene to the offensive mix does add more options.

“Obviously, C.J. is the franchise running back, and I will be the first to say that,” Loggains said of Johnson. “Shonn will be the change-of-pace back. There will be games when Shonn’s role will be where he may get 15 or 20 carries. And there may be a game where C.J. carries the ball 30 times. We’re not going to put a number on that. But we are going to try to use both their strengths as much as possible.”

Johnson feels he is at his best when he is getting multiple touches, either through running the ball or catching it out of the backfield. In five seasons, he has 230 catches for 1,658 yards, including a career-high 57 catches in 2009. Since being drafted in the first round in 2008, he has 6,888 rushing yards with 44 touchdowns.

“If I get 10 or 12 carries a game, I really can’t do nothing with that,” Johnson said.

Oh, sure, the Titans will not be a three yards and a cloud of dust offense. They do plan to throw the ball, too, especially to a deep wide receivers group.

Third-year quarterback Jake Locker has plenty of choices at wide receiver, including former first-round draft picks Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, veteran Nate Washington, and rookie Justin Hunter, the second-round pick out of Tennessee. The team also added former San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker via free agency. 

Also, don’t be surprised when you see Johnson being the target of Locker’s quick passes. Loggains wants to get his speedy running back out in space, so he could line up this season in a variety of ways.

“We would like to move him around more,” Loggains said of how to use Johnson. “ … We need to get him the ball with the ball in his hands more.”

Whatever the offensive tendencies will be this coming season, Loggains will have a full cycle of the off-season to implement them. 

“Last year was a good experience for me to go through the process of it,” he said. “But now I have the opportunity to run what we are going to do this year and having the offseason of phase two OTAs and training camp to get to install that.”

Thus far, Johnson likes what he sees with the offense’s new direction.

“I think a lot of things are changing,” Johnson said. “When Dowell came in (as interim offensive coordinator), he didn’t have time really to sit there and put plays in and do his own thing. It was a situation where they threw him into the fire and he had to do what he can do. Through these first couple of weeks and seeing the type of things we have been doing, I feel positive about things.”