Panthers won't write off struggling Johnson

"We don't want him to get rolling on us," Captain Munnerlyn says.

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 10, 2011 

Carolina Panthers' players and coaches pointed to Chris Johnson's training-camp holdout to explain the sharp drop-off in productivity for the Tennessee running back.

And the Panthers hope the struggling Johnson will hold off at least another week before returning to his Pro Bowl form.

"He missed a lot of training camp, so he's trying to get his legs up underneath him," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said Wednesday. "It's the middle of the year now, so I'm expecting him to be ready to roll. We don't want him to get rolling on us. We don't want to be the team that he just gets it started on."

Johnson, a former East Carolina back, made the Pro Bowl his first three seasons and became just the sixth player in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards when he finished with 2,006 yards in 2009.

But the speedy Johnson, who was timed at 4.24 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine in 2008, has been slow to get going following his five-week holdout, which ended with a lucrative contract extension.

Johnson is 28th in the league in rushing with 366 yards on 121 carries. That averages to 3.02 yards a carry, which ranks last among the 50 players with the most rushing attempts.

But Johnson has shown signs of breaking out of his slump. He had three rushes of 12 yards or more and a 21-yard reception in the first half of a 24-17 loss to Cincinnati last week.

"I think what's happening is - and hopefully it doesn't happen this week - but you're starting to see him work back into football shape," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "You put that first portion of that game on from last week, you see those flashes. So believe me, our approach is we're not looking at his numbers, we're looking at the evidence on the tape."

Johnson will try to get well against a banged-up Panthers' defense that has had trouble stopping the run all year. Blame injuries to starting linebacker Jon Beason and Thomas Davis, breakdowns in the Panthers' gap-control scheme and a murderer's row of opposing backs.

In the first half of the season, the Panthers faced four of the NFL's seven leading rushers in Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew and Michael Turner. Peterson was the only one who didn't run for 100 yards, although he racked up 162 total yards and scored two touchdowns.

The Panthers allow 133 rushing yards a game - 27th out of 32 teams.

They will see Turner again when Atlanta visits next month, and still have to contend with Houston's Arian Foster, the league's eighth-leading rusher, in Week 15.

"Every week seems to be like that. Last week was Adrian Peterson. We had Matt Forte at one time, as well. Now we have Chris Johnson," Rivera said. "I think moreso than anything else each week you just want to make sure you're disciplined and do your job."

Anderson, the Panthers' leading tackler, said he was pleased with the defensive effort against Peterson, who carried 21 times for 86 yards with a long run of 15 yards. Anderson said the Panthers have to be equally tough against Johnson, despite his sub-par stats.

"The man's one of the best in the league. So that's a guy you can never underestimate," he said. "He can pop one at any time. We're preparing for him just like we prepared for AP. He's one of the best."

That hasn't been the case this year. With Johnson topping 100 yards only once, the Titans have the league's worst rushing attack with 70 yards a game.

Johnson's struggles have provided plenty of fodder for Nashville's sports talk shows, although Titans first-year coach Mike Munchak said Johnson has handled the criticism well.

"He has to deal with it every single week," Munchak said. "He's been practicing hard and he's doing about everything he can do. Now it's just up to give him some opportunities to make some big runs."

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