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Steelers aren't looking past Titans RB Johnson

| Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012, 11:08 p.m.
Steelers defenders Ryan Clark (from left), Ryan Mundy and Lawrence Timmons react after Mundy received a third quarter penalty against the Eagles at Heinz Field Sunday, October 7, 2012. (Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review)

A year ago, running back Chris Johnson got nearly all he wanted after months of sparring with Tennessee's management during often heated contract negotiations.

Johnson wanted his paycheck to reflect his worth to a franchise that mortgaged its future on his boundless talents. He desired to have his ego stroked after shattering the team's single-season rushing record with 2,006 yards in 2009, and he cashed in to the tune of a $53.5 million deal.

This season, Johnson's worth has dropped like a toxic penny stock. He has rushed for only 210 yards, putting him on pace for career lows in attempts (165) and yards (672).

Still, the Steelers are ignoring Johnson's paltry numbers — including a 1.5-yard average after contact — as they prepare to meet Tennessee on Thursday night at LP Field. They know he isn't a bruiser or banger but rather an all-or-nothing runner who's willing to retreat to find daylight.

“We'll be taking the approach that we can't underestimate this guy,” linebacker Chris Carter said. “He's still a home run-type runner. He can still break an 80-yard run, so we're focused on containing him.

“You definitely have to give a player like that respect because his résumé has looked good for years. We can't give him any lanes, and that's ultimately what it comes down to. He's not the type that's going to run over you; it's about him getting open space.”

Johnson has hardly resembled the All-Pro running back who strung together four consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons. The Titans (1-4) aren't a playoff-caliber team, but coach Mike Munchak clings to lofty expectations of a back who seems increasingly frustrated by his inability to ignite a struggling offense.

In the aftermath of the Titans' 30-7 loss to Minnesota on Sunday, Johnson declared it would be inappropriate to point fingers. Yet, he accused the offense — outscored by an average of 24 points in four defeats — of flatlining under pressure.

“It's kind of disappointing running down the same road every Sunday,” Johnson said. “The whole offense didn't do anything. Everything took a toll, so you just can't say it's the running game.”

Johnson's longest run from scrimmage is 19 yards — an alarming number as he hopes to turn things around against a Steelers defense that has limited him to an average of 52.7 yards in four career games.

“Unfortunately, we've lost games where we've fallen behind,” Munchak said. “So, it's been hard for us to establish a run game. We're not staying in games ... so the running game gets pushed to the side.”

Johnson hasn't had a chance to find his rhythm, either. He had 11 carries in the season opener against New England and eight attempts in a blowout loss to San Diego.

That doesn't explain why Johnson hasn't used his muscle and speed to explode out of the grasp of defenders. His 1.5-yard average after contact is abysmal when compared to the 3.5 yards Rashard Mendenhall averaged in his season debut last Sunday.

“I'm just worried about getting positive yards,” Munchak said. “I'm thinking with more carries, more things will happen. But Pittsburgh is not the type of team you're going to get a chance to get well in the running game.”

The Steelers have studied the tape of Johnson's best game: 141 yards on 25 carries against undefeated Houston.

“It's always our first objective to stop the run,” nose tackle Casey Hampton said. “It won't be any different this week. We don't want to be the ones that let (Johnson) get it going, because we know it will be a long day if we let him do that.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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