NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Johnson rushed 19 times for 91 yards and caught the ball each time he was targeted against Pittsburgh, but his contributions to Tennessee's offense went beyond that.
Johnson averaged 4.8 yards per carry against the Steelers and caught four passes that included a nifty improvised check-down flip from Hasselbeck to Johnson on which the running back gained 12 yards to convert third-and-10 and set up a field goal by Rob Bironas at the end of the first half.
Johnson also helped the Titans sustain drives and did his part to curtail Steelers blitzes, allowing quarterback Matt Hasselbeck opportunities to stay in the pocket until he could deliver the ball.
"He did an excellent job in pass pro," Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. "Pittsburgh, they came after us pretty good, and he really did — I was more impressed, I'm not saying I was not impressed with his running, but I was really impressed with his (blitz) pick up."
Blitzing linebackers are often much bigger than Johnson, safeties can be bigger and cornerbacks can be quick, but Johnson frequently finds a way to distract, obstruct, slow down or completely halt opponents.
He said his motivation to do so stems from his desire to stay on the field.
"Basically in the pass game it's a situation where if you play running back and you can't pass block, you really can't be an every-down back," Johnson said. "You've got to get out on third downs a lot. Ever since I came in, I pride myself on picking up the blitz."
The fifth-year pro said the ability to pass protect is important because it makes an offense less predictable for opposing defenses.
"If you're not a good pass protector it's like the defense knows when you're in the game, it's a high chance there's going to be a running play," Johnson said. "So if you can be an every-down back, they're not going to know what you're going to do."
Titans left tackle Michael Roos said Johnson has continued to improve his blocking ability since his rookie 2008 season. Roos said the offensive line and running back have keys they use to read defenders and maintain communication with each other.
"It's something for him to keep focus on so he can stay on the field," Roos said. "The better he gets at it, the longer he can stay out there and just be that much more of a threat for our offense. If nobody does blitz, then he can slide out and be a passing threat and the other team has to focus on that that much more."
Tennessee (2-4) visits Buffalo (3-3) Sunday, and Johnson will want to be on the field as much as possible against a Bills defense that is allowing league worsts of 173.5 rushing yards per game and 5.8 rushing yards per play.
Johnson rushed for 153 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard score, last season at Buffalo.
Buffalo played last season's game without defensive tackle Kyle Williams and has added free agent defensive end Mario Williams.
"It will be slightly different," Roos said of this year's matchup. "Kyle didn't play last year. He'll be there this year. He's definitely a very disruptive player and works hard and is a force in there, so I think we all must make sure we stay with our keys and stay focused and keep trying to build off last year and what we did last week."
It will be the third start in a row for Hasselbeck in relief of second-year pro Jake Locker.
Hasselbeck completed 25 of 44 passes for 290 yards against Pittsburgh and led the Titans on drives that produced 10 points on the final two possessions.
Locker made some throws during individual drills and did some running Thursday for the second straight day, but Titans coach Mike Munchak said the team will not rush Locker back to action before he is ready.
"I think the big thing is he wasn't sore from yesterday, didn't feel any worse, felt fine from what he did yesterday with the individual drills that he did," Munchak said. "He threw about the same, tomorrow he'll probably do a little bit more. So far he's feeling good, which means he's getting his confidence back. Next week, again, as we go through the weekend, and Monday, Tuesday, we can kind of see where he's at."