For the first time in 27 years, the New York Jets will begin an NFL weekend with the league's No. 1 defense. And after yielding no offensive touchdowns during the franchise's ninth 2-0 start, the Jets have a great opportunity to improve to 3-0 if their "D" keeps Titans RB Chris Johnson in check this "Throwback" afternoon at the Meadowlands.
"The speed is what makes him special," said S Kerry Rhodes of the 5'11", 204-pound Johnson. "He's not a guy who's going to kill you running the ball up the middle like a traditional running back. He can beat you out of the backfield, he can run the edge on you, he can line up at receiver, he can hurt you with kickoff and punt returns. He's a very versatile guy — I think that's his biggest asset."
Johnson has been a bright spot in the Titans' disappointing 0-2 start. In last week's 34-31 loss to the Houston Texans, he rushed 16 times for 197 yards with scoring runs of 57 and 90 yards. And he hauled in eight balls for 97 yards, taking one into the end zone from 69 yards out.
"You just have to be aware where he's at and the type of runs that he has," said DE Shaun Ellis. "We have to be patient in our run fits and don't overcommit because he can reverse the whole field on you. You have to set the edge on him and make him run inside."
Entering Week 3, the explosive Johnson is the AFC's leading rusher with 254 yards and he's averaging a ridiculous 8.2 yards per clip. The defending Super Bowl champion Steelers were able to slow him down in Week 1, holding him to 57 yards on 15 rushes. But the second-year player is a dynamic game-changer on an offense who still likes to pound the rock.
"Chris is just a football player with track speed," said Titans head coach Jeff Fisher. "He's got speed and quickness, and he's shown over a short period of time that if you get the ball in his hands in the right place, he can go the distance. That's unfortunate for us and him that his performance last week has kind of gone by the wayside, kind of disappeared. Certainly, I doubt it disappeared in the Jets' defensive meeting room, but I think nationally our loss and the Texans win kind of overshadowed his achievements in that ballgame."
The Jets' defense has rightfully entered the national spotlight because they allowed nine combined points to the Texans (zero) and the Patriots. Head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine have assembled excellent game plans and the Jets have stuffed the run and brought the pressure on the quarterback. And they've also displayed perceived pressure and exotic overloads while receiving contributions from everyone.
"They make it creative and it's unconventional," Rhodes said of the attack. "Every week you know they're going have some kind of overload blitz with the DBs. You're excited to get the game plan every week and see what's in store. It makes it exciting. Everyone has a place in this defense and everyone has a package, so it's good."
"You don't know what we're doing," added Ellis. "That's why it's so great. You don't know if the guys are really coming or they're dropping."
And the unit hasn't lost a step when players have been out. OLB Calvin Pace, serving a suspension, will make his regular-season debut in Week 5 at Miami. Vernon Gholston started in his place against the Texans and performed adequately. When the Jets played a lot of nickel and dime packages against the Pats, Gholston's snaps dramatically decreased but the defensive backs had a fantastic day. Darrelle Revis shut down Randy Moss and corners Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman stepped up when Lito Sheppard (quad) and Donald Strickland (ankle) went down.
"That's the thing — so far no team has really gotten downfield on us," Rhodes said. "If we just stay consistent on the back end, make plays and communicate, it's going to be hard for teams to pass on us anyway. But I think teams will try to run the ball more and be more conservative."
Tennessee bolstered its receiving corps for Kerry Collins in the off-season with the drafting of WR Kenny Britt, a Rutgers product, and TE Jared Cook along with the free agent signing of Nate Washington. But the Titans are a running football team and they'd like to get Johnson going.
"It's going to be a between-the-lines game," Ellis said. "They pride themselves on having a physical run game and we have to match that. We have to be geared up for the run this week."
The 36-year-old Collins, never known for his mobility, can still make all the throws. But if the Jets contain Johnson and get a lead, they'll have a stationary target to attack and that smells like organized chaos unleashed.
"They're going to try to get the ball out of his hands quickly," Rhodes said. "He's definitely not the most mobile guy in the world, so they'll try to run the ball, get the ball out quick, some screens, just stuff to try to catch us off guard."
To this point, the Jets have kept their opponents discombobulated. We'll see if Chris Johnson, seemingly faster than the speed of light, and the Titans have any answers.