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Titans' Johnson gets running game back on stride

By Gene Cherry

RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - The yards are finally beginning to come for Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson.

For the first time this season, 2009's surprise NFL rushing leader has put together back-to-back 100-yard games.

The clincher came in an 111-yard performance on Monday that had Johnson toiling late into the Titans' 30-3 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"When you combine the yards between Javon (Ringer, who had 42) and I, I think it was a pretty good day," Johnson, who gained an impressive 2,006 yards last season, told reporters.

"This team is a team that will eventually make plays if we don't get away from the run."

Running for big gains has not been an easy chore this season for Johnson, whom twice Super Bowl-winning quarterback Phil Simms calls the fastest player in the NFL.

Breakout games like Johnson's 142 yards against the Oakland Raiders and 131 yards versus the Dallas Cowboys have shared space with a paltry 34-yard effort on September 19 that prompted the defensive-minded Pittsburgh Steelers to say the third-year player had given up.

Johnson denied that was true, but Nashville Tennessean writer John Glennon recently wondered if all the pounding Johnson has taken -- he easily tops league leaders in carries -- might be wearing out the running back.

"I'm running the same," Johnson said in response.

BIG PREDICTIONS

Statically, he is, having gained 596 yards for his first six games of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons.

However, his up-and-down start has left the impression that he is doing less this year, especially after his bold pre-season predictions.

Johnson, in the heat of summer, had talked of sprinting to the league's first consecutive 2,000-yard seasons, maybe even threatening Eric Dickerson's all-time NFL single-season rushing mark of 2,105 yards.

The 34 yards against the Steelers and a 53-yard total against Denver two weeks later probably shattered those dreams.

Johnson is on pace for a 1,600-yard season and trails Houston's Arian Foster by 39 yards for the league rushing lead.

Double-teaming by opponents and efforts to get Ringer the ball more often have cut into Johnson's carries and average.

"It happens pretty much every play," Johnson said of the double-teaming. "(It is) just a thing we got to get used to, game plan for it and execute."

Before the Steelers shut him down, though, Johnson had rattled off 12 consecutive games of at least 100 yards, including a whopping 228 against Jacksonville last season.

Six consecutive games in the streak netted him 125 or more yards -- an NFL record that eclipsed Hall of Famer Jim Brown's best of five in a row.

LONGEST RUN

"He's a guy where you can't just hit him and think he's going to go down," Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said recently. "He breaks a lot of tackles and makes people look stupid all the time."

He would need more help from the Titans' offensive line for those plays to happen frequently this season, Titans coach Jeff Fisher said earlier in the season.

"It's hard to give CJ an opportunity to bounce outside," Fisher said.

Three times last season Johnson ripped off runs of 85 or more yards.

This year he has topped 75 yards only once, and his longest run on Monday came on his last play, 35 yards up the middle for a late-game touchdown.

Fast but overlooked by major U.S. universities as a high school running back, Johnson found his niche as a senior runner, kick returner and receiver at East Carolina.

The Titans made him a first-round pick in the 2008 draft, and Johnson immediately had an impact, gaining 1,228 yards in his rookie year.

"It's hard to get a big hit on him," Simms once said. "And he's so light a lot of times he gets hit and it just pushes him a little to the side and he keeps going."

Few expected the stunning 2009 season, and for good reason.

Only Dickerson (2,105), Jamal Lewis (2,066), Barry Sanders (2,053), and Terrell Davis (2,008) have ever gained more yards in a season.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)