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Steelers-Titans play to watch: '3 wide zone stretch'

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

Titans running back Chris Johnson hasn't had much success against the Steelers.

He has started against them in each of his five seasons but is averaging only 60 yards per game.

The reason?

The Steelers haven't allowed the big gain. In his five starts, Johnson's longest run was 32 yards; he finished with 57 total yards.

That could change in a hurry Sunday.

With the addition of guards Chance Warmack via the first round of the draft and Andy Levitre via free agency from Buffalo to go with perennial Pro Bowl tackles Michael Roos and David Stewart, the Titans hope to get their running game back on track.

If that happens, the “3 wide zone stretch” could prove to be a game-changing play for Johnson, a guy who once put together 12 consecutive 100-yard games and rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season.

The Titans employ mostly a zone-blocking scheme because they want to take advantage of Johnson's speed and one-cut ability.

The “3 wide zone stretch” is just one variation of the play Tennessee likes to use to highlight that speed.

The Titans line up in a 3-wide receiver set with two to the right. But instead of a speedy receiver in the slot, they line up backup tight end Craig Stevens there.

The offensive line goes strong left with Delanie Walker at tight end, and Kenny Britt lines up wide left, Nate Washington wide right and Johnson in a single-back set.

At the snap, the offensive line steps in unison to the left to create a flow. Walker will try to get to the outside shoulder of the right outside linebacker with guards Levitre and Warmack scraping off double teams to get to the inside linebackers.

The play is designed to give Johnson options.

He will take the stretch handoff from quarterback Jake Locker and will look to bounce the play outside. However, if that's not possible, Johnson can cut between the tight end and tackle or — maybe the most difficult decision to defense — he can cut back.

The cut-back option always is available, putting pressure on the defensive front seven to be gap sound. If a defender is out of position, Johnson has the ability to turn a short gain into significant yardage.

“Anytime the ball is snapped, he is capable of going the distance, and he has proven that,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Johnson. “Obviously there is a heightened awareness when you're playing a guy the caliber of him.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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