Steelers defense has tough task with Tennessee's Johnson
In two career games, Titans running back Chris Johnson has failed to reach 100 yards rushing against the Steelers.
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The Steelers have taught the NFL how to contain Tennessee's Chris Johnson, and Sunday they hope to do it a third time.
Of course, it depends on how you describe the word contain.
Johnson, the sixth player in league history to top 2,000 yards rushing when he did that in his second season in 2009, has a dozen consecutive 100-yard games rushing. He reached No. 12 Sunday when he had 142 yards in Tennessee's 38-13 rout of Oakland.
The NFL record is 14, set by Hall of Famer Barry Sanders.
The Steelers' defense, which has allowed fewer yards than any in the NFL since the start of the 2006 season, has yielded one 100-yard rusher in the past 35 regular-season games dating to the 2007 season. Baltimore's Ray Rice ran for 140 yards against them on 30 carries Dec. 27 in a game the Steelers won at Heinz Field.
Included in those other 34 shutouts of 100-yard rushers is Chris Johnson. Twice. The Steelers held Johnson to 57 yards on 15 carries in an overtime victory to start the '09 season. And they held him to 69 yards in '08. In that game of his rookie season, 21 yards came on a third-quarter touchdown run that gave the Titans the lead for good in what became a route, 31-14.
The Steelers make no bones about it, their priority Sunday will be to hold Johnson down again.
"It's a big priority," said outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley. "You stop the run, you force a team to go to its passing game, which allows us to bring a little heat and get to the quarterback."
Woodley explained the formula for how they contained Johnson last season, and their plan to do it again.
"We hit him as a team. We constantly got to him. When running backs are taking hits after hits from big guys, they slow down a little bit."
The Steelers may not have one of their prime weapons against the run, big nose tackle Casey Hampton. He has a hamstring injury, did not practice Wednesday, and it is unclear if he will be able to play Sunday. If not, Chris Hoke will replace him, something he has done since '04.
Hoke said the key to holding down Johnson, who stands 5-11 and weighs 191, is to hold your ground, along with the always-important factor of not getting blocked.
"He's not real heavy but he's so fast and strong," Hoke said. "He jump-cuts on a dime, he's very quick at making his reads. You have to make sure you're gap-sound on every play because he gets a little crack and he's gone.
"It's easy for a guy like that, to get everybody a little over-excited -- you want to make sure he doesn't make a big play so maybe you get out of your gap a little bit and you run to the ball and he cuts back when you're running to the ball. You have to make sure you stay square to the line of scrimmage so there is no cutback lane."
End Aaron Smith, around longer than any other defender, explained why the Steelers always have had the philosophy of making the run their priority.
"It's easy to pick the ball up and throw it, anybody can do that. To run it, you allow them to have another option and you make it difficult on yourself."
The Steelers were encouraged after Byron Leftwich threw some passes for the first time in practice Wednesday since he was injured in the final preseason game. Leftwich retired to the sideline after doing so with ice on his injured left knee, but otherwise keeps taking steps toward returning to the playing field.
Leftwich could be ready to play by the third game, Sept. 26 at Tampa, where he opened as the Buccaneers' starting quarterback last season.
Offensive tackle Max Starks (ankle) and nose tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring) did not practice because of their injuries. Jonathan Scott will become the third new starting lineman (Maurkice Pouncey, Flozell Adams) if Starks cannot play. Some new injuries popped up as well. Wide receiver Arnaz Battle missed practice with a knee injury. Two rookies were limited, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (thigh) and linebacker Jason Worilds (shoulder), who led the special teams with three tackles in the opener.
A gathering of statistical milestones, possible milestones and the noteworthy:
Hines Ward's 108 yards receiving were the most of his career in an opener, topping the 103 yards he had vs. Tennessee last season, the only other time he has reached 100 in the first game. ... Heath Miller needs 119 yards receiving to surpass Bennie Cunningham (2,879) as the No. 2 most-productive tight end in team history. No. 1 is Elbie Nickel with 5,133 yards. ... The Steelers may be 1-8 in the state of Tennessee (their first game, 1997, was played in Memphis), but they are 13-3 all time, any place against the Titans/Houston Oilers in September. ... Counting the season opener, the Steelers have allowed the fewest points (825) since the start of the 2007 season and the fewest yards (18,042) since the start of the '06 season.
First Published September 16, 2010 12:00 am