As the Eagles head to Nashville to take on the Titans in their last game before the bye, their focus will be simple: slow down Chris Johnson. It’s easier said than done, as Johnson is on pace for nearly 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns a year after running for more than 2,000 yards and 14 scores. This year, the Titans are 4-0 when Johnson breaks the 100-yard mark and 0-2 when he falls short.
“He’s unlike any back I’ve seen,” said Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. “He’s explosive, he’s quick, he runs behind his pads, he plays bigger than he is and if he’s not the best [then] he’s close to the top in the league.”
Nobody has come within 600 yards of Johnson’s totals over the last season and a half. So, how can the Eagles slow down the league’s best rusher?
“This running back is special, and as soon as you think you have him stopped, he cuts it back and he hits a seam and he’s off to the races,” McDermott said. “He’s done that against good defenses in the past and we just need to make sure that we’re gap sound and that our cutbacks are playing the way we need to play the cutbacks.”
Johnson has 27 runs of 20 or more yards over his last 22 games and 10 over 40 yards. In order to keep him from breaking a long run, the Eagles need to avoid any overpursuit and play a disciplined style of defense.
“We’re going to play a lot of gap control defense, we’ve got to make sure everyone is in their lanes,” said defensive tackle Trevor Laws. “We’ve been looking over and over our schemes, making sure everybody is in their gap and every gap is accounted for to make sure he can’t squirt through any holes in there.”
The extra discipline doesn’t mean any decrease in aggression though, at least not according to Ernie Sims. “Oh no, no, no, no,” Sims said. “We’re not going to be taking any aggression away. The main thing we’ve got to do is make sure we’ve got all the seams covered. He’s the type of back, if you leave one seam open he’s going to expose you.”
Sims also said gang tackling will be important, as it can be tough for one player to bring Johnson to the ground. “We’ve got to swarm to the ball, cause he’s a hell of a back,” Sims said.
The Eagles haven’t been exposed much recently. The Birds defense gave up just 65 yards on the ground against the Falcons, with none of the rushes going for more than 9 yards.
In fact, the Eagles have given up just one run of more than 20 yards all year, a 33-yarder by the Lions’ Jahvid Best in Week 2. Only the Steelers haven’t given up any runs over 20 yards, while the Eagles are tied with the Patriots and Seahawks for second place in that category.
Philadelphia’s pretty proud of its performance against top running backs this year – particularly with Frank Gore and Michael Turner in the rearview mirror. Stopping Gore, Turner and Johnson back-to-back-to-back would be meaningful according to Laws.
“It’d be huge, especially when people come into this year thinking it was going to be a rebuilding year for the team and for the defense,” Laws said. “So stopping these elite running backs really makes us feel good here.”
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