When last the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, he was near the tail end of what would be his least successful NFL season to date…a that fact wasn't at all obvious to the Buccaneers.
Johnson's best outing in a disappointing (for him) 2011 season was a 190-yard performance against Tampa Bay on November 27 in Nashville. Of course, the Bucs' run defense was a central problem in their own struggles last year, and that's one of the main areas the team is working to improve under new Head Coach Greg Schiano in 2012. It's fitting – and a good test – that Johnson is coming to town to face the Bucs again Friday night, even if this time it's a preseason contest.
"He's an explosive running back," said Schiano. "He's got good size and exceptional speed, and he really has a good feel for finding the smallest amount of daylight. We need to press him downfield and we need to tackle well. We missed a dozen tackles [last] Friday night. That's not the worst we've ever seen but certainly not where we want to be. We need to improve, and with the running backs we've got to tackle tonight, that will be a challenge."
Like most NFL starters, Johnson didn't play extensively in the Titans' preseason opener at Seattle last Saturday, carrying the ball just five times for eight yards. But Javon Ringer, Johnson's primary backup, got 22 yards on four carries and receiver-turned-running back Darius Reynaud picked up 29 yards on five totes. The Bucs' defense will also have to deal with a very mobile quarterback in second-year man Jake Locker, who will get the start on Friday night.
Schiano believes the Bucs' success in stopping the Titan runners – and other backs throughout the season – rests on the play of the linebackers, which has shown steady improvement throughout the offseason and during the three weeks of training camp.
"I think we're making progress," said Schiano of the team's linebacker play. "Our big thing is to get them to play more decisively, get them downhill on the run game. And we're headed in that direction. We're not where we need to be but we're headed in that direction. I think as that goes, so will our run defense go, because I think our defensive front is penetrating pretty good and getting off the ball. We'll keep improving at linebacker. Tonight's a big test with the running game that we're facing. They're going to come and try to knock us off the ball."
The Bucs may have another significant weapon against the run tonight if rookie safety Mark Barron can make an impact in his NFL debut. Last Friday, the coaches made a game-day decision to hold Barron out of the preseason opener due to discomfort he was feeling in an injured toe. Barron is expected to play tonight, however, and should line up as the starting strong safety opposite free safety Ronde Barber, who has made the conversion from cornerback to the back end of the secondary.
"It's going to be good to see Mark back out there," said Schiano. "We've got to get him and Ronde at least playing together a little bit. I think things are starting to come along."
The Bucs might also get their first preseason action out of such players as cornerback Aqib Talib and tight end Dallas Clark in Friday's game. Both Talib and Clark were also held out of the opener but have practiced all week leading up to the Tennessee game. There are no official inactives for preseason games, so the Bucs' Friday "scratches" may not be evident until after the opening whistle, but Schiano should have more than 80 players at his disposal for preseason Game Two.
The Bucs will play their first home game of 2012 against the Titans on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Visit Buccaneers.com again at halftime and after the game for further reports on the evening's action, including coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.