St. Louis Rams' run defense will get severe test
BY JIM THOMAS
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/12/2009

Steven Jackson and Chris Johnson have mutual friends and bumped into each other a couple of times last offseason.

"We actually were supposed to get together and work out this offseason," Jackson said.

But Johnson is from Florida and Jackson's hometown is Las Vegas. They couldn't make the geography work.

"We just couldn't match any dates up to be able to train together," Jackson said.

Even minus those joint workouts, things have worked out pretty well for both running backs. Sore back and all, Jackson leads the NFC and is second in the NFL with 1,232 yards rushing. Johnson leads the AFC and the NFL with 1,509 yards rushing.

So Sunday in Nashville, it'll be the league's No. 1 and No. 2 ground gainers going head to head when Jackson's Rams meet Johnson's Tennessee Titans.

"I think there's a sense of pride," Jackson said. "But Chris is having an unbelievable year. He's having a year I can only dream to have one day."

Johnson is on pace to become the sixth running back in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season. He has averaged 126 yards a game so far; if he averages 149 yards over the final four games, he'll equal the NFL's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set by Eric Dickerson of the Los Angeles Rams in 1984.

It will be up to the 28th-ranked Rams run defense to make sure Johnson doesn't run wild on them at LP Field. For most Rams defenders maybe all of them Johnson will be the fastest back they've ever faced.

"No question," defensive tackle Clifton Ryan said. "It's in the books, for life, that he ran a 4.23, whatever it was."

(Johnson ran the 40 in a sizzling 4.24 seconds at the NFL scouting combine.)

"The guy's fast straight ahead," Ryan continued. "He's fast laterally. He's got great vision. A patient runner. He doesn't fumble the ball much. He's up there in that upper-echelon class with Steven Jackson, Adrian Peterson and himself those are the top three backs in the league. Each of them has their own great dimensions that they bring to the game."

Obviously, speed is the X factor with Johnson. Any time Johnson breaks the line of scrimmage, he's a threat to go the distance. Before this season, no one in NFL history had more than three 85-yard touchdown runs in a career. Johnson already has three this season, with scoring runs of 91, 89 and 85 yards.

"He's here for a minute, and he's gone the next," Tennessee quarterback Vince Young told St. Louis reporters. "That's just a God-given talent. Some guys either have it, or some guys don't. Obviously, you see that he has it."

The Rams are allowing 146 yards rushing a game, and are on pace to yield 2,339 rushing yards this season, which would be the fourth-worst total in franchise history. They have allowed 51 "explosive" runs runs of 10 yards or more including 10 of 22 yards or more.

"I just don't think (Johnson) can have an 85-yarder," Rams defensive coordinator Ken Flajole said. "Those seem to be the ones that kind of break your back emotionally. So we've just got to make sure that we do a good job of containing him.

"He's going to get his yards. It's like saying Drew Brees isn't going to complete a pass. I think when you're rare, and you're talented, you're going to get some yards. It's just the explosive ones that we've got to eliminate."

Against the Rams, Johnson will attempt to break a Tennessee franchise record he currently shares with Earl Campbell by rushing for 100 yards or more in his eighth consecutive game.

For his part, Jackson has rushed for 100 yards-plus in five of his last six contests. Playing for one of the league's worst passing teams, Jackson continues to bust his way through or run around eight- and nine-man fronts from opposing defenses. Even with the back injury that has kept him out of practice for three straight weeks, Jackson has averaged 100.5 yards rushing the last two games.

Jackson didn't discount the possibility that he may have to follow the "no-practice" routine for the rest of this season.

"First things first is making sure that I'm ready to go on Sunday," Jackson said. "And rehabbing with the training staff and making sure that my back is getting to the point where I can take the carries, and take the pounding. That's what's more important than going out there on a Wednesday, when no one's watching.

"Of course I would like to get the (practice) reps. But what's important is that I'm able to at least get to the point of being able to play. If we had a Thursday night game, I wouldn't be able to go, just being honest with you, because of the pounding I take on Sunday. I need the entire week to get ready to do it again."