Up-and-Down Run 'D' Faces Big Challenge

Johnson in 2008 (Jonathan Daniel - Getty)

Chris Johnson is the best big-play back in NFL history. After a slow start and despite running behind an offensive line ruined by injuries, he has shown flashes of the 2,000-yard rusher he was in 2009. Speaking of flashes, Green Bay's defense showed flashes of greatness against the Bears.

It took Chris Johnson 94 yards to remind the football world that he's one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL.

Johnson's long touchdown on Monday night against the Jets was the sixth scoring sprint of at least 80 yards in his career. That's the most in NFL history, and twice as many as the next players on the list: Adrian Peterson, Barry Sanders, Hugh Melhenny, O.J. Simpson and former Packers star Ahman Green.

"Did you watch the ‘Monday Night Football' game?" Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked about Johnson on Wednesday. "He looks like he's running all right to me. He's definitely someone we're focused on."

Despite running behind a patchwork offensive line, Johnson has shown flashes of the form that made him a 2,000-yard rusher in 2009. After rushing for a miniscule 45 yards on 33 attempts (1.7 average) in his first three games, Johnson has rushed for 1,114 yards (5.3 average) in his last 11 games. With former Packers fullback Quinn Johnson serving as Johnson's lead blocker for about 16 snaps a game, Johnson has topped 100 yards five times and gained 99 in another.

"I think any time he touches the ball, he's capable of scoring," Titans coach Mike Munchak said during a conference call on Wednesday. "He's had three of them over 80 yards this year. He has that kind of home run ability, which is a good thing. Which means that hopefully it encourages us to, every time a play is called, realizing that if we do our job up front — receivers, everybody — that you have a chance for this guy to have a home run. But we also have to do a better job on the other handoffs — that we make sure we don't have minus runs and stay efficient in the run game."

Green Bay's run defense, on the other hand, has run hot and cold. After a strong stretch at midseason in which the Packers yielded 79.7 rushing yards per game, they yielded 110 yards against the Lions, 147 yards against the Giants, 240 yards against Peterson and the Vikings and 135 yards against the Lions. That's 158.0 rushing yards per game.

The defense, however, has played better over the last game-and-a-half. Last week at Chicago, the Bears rushed 16 times for 72 yards in the first half but seven times for just 11 yards in the second.

Still, Green Bay is No. 14 in rushing defense (114.3 per game) and No. 24 in yards allowed per carry (4.5).

"I feel good about it. It helps that we've got Clay back," defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said of Clay Matthews, who was a wrecking ball against Chicago's run game in his first game back after a four-game absence. "We feel good about it. He's a dangerous running back. You can do great all game and then one play you've got an 80-yard touchdown run. He's a headache."

Since entering the league as the 24th pick of the 2008 draft, Johnson has rushed for 6,804 yards. That's second in the league behind the indomitable Peterson. Among active players, it took Johnson 70 games to reach 6,000 career rushing yards. Again, that's behind only Peterson (70).

"It's tough, because he can do anything," defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. "He can hit the A-gap and take it 90 yards or he can hit the sideline and take it (the distance). It's going to be tough but I have confidence that we'll do a good job."

The other starting defensive lineman, C.J. Wilson, hopes he can play after missing the last three games with a knee injury sustained early in the Nov. 25 game against the Giants. Wilson played at East Carolina with Johnson.

"It's been my dream to go and hit the guy," Wilson said. "We couldn't hit him in practice because he wore the red jersey and you didn't want to hurt your star player, but now that he's on the opposing team, I'd like to get my shot at him."

In Wilson's absence, second-round pick Jerel Worthy has been getting a lot of snaps as a defensive end in the base defense after playing mostly defensive tackle in the nickel and dime packages.

"You feel a little more athletic being on the edge but I enjoy it and have fun with it," Worthy said. "I go out there and be accountable for my gap, do my job and do what Coach Trgo's asking me to do. I want to prove to the rest of the guys that I belong."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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