METAIRIE — It appears that fleet-footed running back Chris Johnson of the Tennessee Titans has his “mojo” working again, which may not bode well for the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints.
The Saints (9-3) visit the playoff-minded Titans (7-5) under rookie coach Mike Munchak on Sunday in what promises to be a compelling inter-conference clash at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn.
“He’s come on the last month and looked just like the Chris Johnson we’ve grown to know,” Saints free safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “You kind of knew that was going to come at some point during the season.
“I think it just took a while for him to get right. But nothing is wrong with him now. Whatever it is, he got it fixed and they’re playing well.”
Johnson has terrorized opponents the past two weeks, rushing for a combined 343 yards against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (23 carries, 190 yards) and Buffalo Bills (23-153), which breaks down to a robust 7.5 yards per carry.
After getting off to a sluggish start during which he rushed for more than 64 yards just one time in the first eight games, Johnson has climbed to 14th among NFL running backs with 852 yards rushing.
The former No. 1 draft pick from East Carolina in 2008 is one of the league’s hottest ball carriers the past month, piling up 486 yards rushing in his past four games.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Saints strong safety Roman Harper said.
“He’s fire-hot right now,” Saints linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar added.
Johnson was anything but “fire-hot” the first half of the season after holding out during training camp and eventually signing a six-year, $55.26 million contract that includes $30 million in guaranteed money.
He hardly justified the blockbuster contract in the early going, compiling nearly as many receiving yards (91) as rushing yards (98) in his first three games.
Now, the Titans are vying for the sixth playoff seed in the AFC after winning three of their past four games, due largely to the return to form of Johnson, who clearly has the Saints undivided attention.
“I think he’s one of the most dangerous rushers we’ve seen this year,” Dunbar said. “Chris Johnson poses a different threat than a lot of big bruisers who can move like Michael Turner or Frank Gore because he is very elusive.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us. We definitely have to take angles to the ball and make sure we fit up things perfectly and properly. Any time he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to go the distance.”
Jenkins said all 11 defenders must “populate to the ball” when Johnson has it in his hands.
“With Chris Johnson, every play can be a home run if you don’t fit it up right,” Jenkins said. “Every single guy has to have their integrity from the front side to the back side. If you don’t have contain on both sides, he can get out and leave everybody.”
Harper said Johnson is “Percy Harvin-type quick,”
referring to the Minnesota Vikings wide receiver/return specialist who is one of the fastest players in the NFL.
Saints defensive end Will Smith compares Johnson to a “faster version” of Houston Texans running back Arian Foster and players must honor their “gap assignments” and fill potential cutback lanes.
“We have to stay sound,” Smith said. “We have to be disciplined in our front seven and keep him in that bubble, and when we have him in that bubble, then swarm to the ball.”
Against Tampa Bay in Week 12, Johnson rushed for a season-high 190 yards, including runs of 34, 25, 24 and 20 yards. Last week, he picked up where he left off, amassing 153 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns against the Bills at less than full strength.
Johnson did not eat a full meal and lost 10 pounds during the week leading up to the game.
“I can’t lie,” Johnson said after the game. “I felt weak out there. It was pretty hard to practice all week. It was the flu or something, I don’t know, but it was bad.”
The 5-foot-11, 191-pound Johnson is expected to be back at full strength against the Saints, who can clinch the NFC South with a win and a loss by the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints can clinch a playoff berth with a win and losses by either Chicago or Detroit.
“Man, if we were playing this game in Week 2 of the season, we’d say playing him would not be much of a challenge,” Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “But you look at him now and he’s rolling. I think he’s a hell of a back. Unfortunately for us, I think he’s really finding his groove.”
As expected, Saints RB Mark Ingram was ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Titans after missing a third straight practice Friday with a turf toe injury. The loss of Ingram means Chris Ivory will likely be active for the first time in four games and assume Ingram’s short-yardage duties. … LB Jonathan Casillas (knee) and DE Turk McBride (ankle) will also miss the game, while Vilma, who was limited Friday, is probable along with LB Scott Shanle (shoulder) and DT Sedrick Ellis (hamstring). … Titans LB Barrett Ruud was declared out of the game with a groin injury, while CB Jason McCourty, WR Nate Washington (ankle) and LB Patrick Bailey (hamstring) are questionable after not practicing all week.