ORCHARD PARK - The Buffalo Bills' defense is not looking past Tennessee Titans' running back Chris Johnson, despite the former National Football League's leading rusher's struggles this season.
"He is obviously a heck of a back and he is definitely a challenge to defenses," Bills' defensive end Mario Williams said earlier this week. "We have to be on our P's and Q's (Sunday)."
Johnson, who led the NFL in rushing in 2009 with 2,006 yards, has seen his production decline each of the past three seasons.
"He scares you," Bills' head coach Chan Gailey said. "Every time he touches the ball he scares you. You can still see that electric speed and electric quickness that he has."
The fifth-year running back out of East Carolina rushed for 1,364 yards in 2010, 1,047 last season and has 301 yards through six games this season. Along with a drop in yards, Johnson's carries per season and yards per carry have both fallen off. In his league-leading season in 2009, Johnson averaged 5.6 yards per carry compared to 4.3 in 2010, 4.0 in 2011 and 3.3 this season. He carried the ball 358 times in 2009, 316 in 2010, 262 in 2011 and has averaged just 15.3 carries per game this year.
"Yes he has not had as many yards and the statistics are down," Gailey added. "But I am telling you, defensive coaches hold their breath every time he touches (the ball)."
Johnson may have one thing going in his favor today at Ralph Wilson Stadium, as the Bills have shown a penchant for giving up huge yards on the ground to opposing teams' rushing attacks.
"I think we have had two games that it was bad," Gailey said. "I think New England and San Francisco we did not play the run well."
The Bills' rush defense was awful against the Patriots and the 49ers in successive weeks, allowing 247 yards to New England and 311 to San Francisco. In all, the Bills have allowed five of six teams 100 or more yards rushing, including 182 to the Arizona Cardinals during their 19-16 overtime win in the desert.
"Last week, we had the quarterback rush for 66 (yards) and a fake punt for 25, so I think those are statistic (anomalies)," Gailey said. "We held the rest of those guys to under 120 yards. The tailback position got 90. I do not think it is as big of an issue - it was for two weeks - do not get me wrong it was. But I think we got a little of it back. Before that it was not that bad of an issue."
Besides an inability to stop the run for much of the season, the Bills' offense, quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in particular, has shown the inability to move the ball down the field.
"First of all, we have been more in ball-control type throwing, picking and choosing times to maybe throw it down the field," Gailey said. "We have not set it up, so some of that is design. We are running the ball better this year. We are running it for more yards and running it better so we have not had to rely on the pass as much."
Fizpatrick has completed just 3-of-14 passes over 20 yards this year and none that were over 30 yards (0-for-7), throwing three of his eight interceptions.
"The last two weeks, especially I think, we have not been real effective," Fitzpatrick said of the Bills deep game. "I think in weeks before that I think consistency was an issue. The turnovers were an issue and I think the passing game, but we were able to effectively throw the ball, get yards and do all of that."
"We just have not thrown the ball down the field and taken as many chances this year," Gailey added. "We are not having to."
The reason the Bills have not had to take as many chances down the field, despite Fitzpatrick's seeming inability to throw an accurate deep ball, has been the duel threat they have at running back. But Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller have both missed time this year due to injury and the Bills have yet to figure out exactly what to do with both of them when they are healthy and in the lineup.
"I'm not making the plays that I did for us at the beginning," Jackson said. "Some of it has to do with the injury but for us to be as successful as we want to be I have to go out there and start making some more plays for us."
In five games, Jackson has run for just 126 yards on 44 carries while Spiller, who has shown he can bring an added dimension to the Bills' offense has gained 453 yards on 60 carries. Despite missing most of the Bills' Week 2 win over the Cleveland Browns with an injured shoulder, touching the ball eight times for 33 yards against the Patriots and seven times for 24 yards against the 49ers, Spiller is 10th in the league in rushing and his 7.6-yards-per-carry is good enough for first in the NFL, nearly two yards better than the 49ers' Frank Gore, who is third on the list at 5.8. Washington Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin III is second at 6.9-yards-per-carry.
"We know that there is only one football," Spiller told the media Monday. "You are not going to get as many (touches) as you want. Would you want to? Yeah. But at the end of the day, you are not because there is only one (football) and we have a lot of playmakers on this team. It is a good thing to have. I am glad that we have that problem."
With the Bills heading into their bye week after today's game, both the players and coaches know what a win will mean to the confidence of the team as it prepares to get ready for consecutive road games against the Houston Texans in Week 9 and the second meeting of the season with the Patriots in Week 10.
"This is a big game for us," Fitzpatrick said. "To get to 4-3 before the bye, I think that is huge. I think it has been a weird season so far in terms of we are 3-3 and that is not where we wanted to be, but the three games that we lost have felt like we are a much worse team than 3-3. To be here and also to have the other teams be 3-3 in the AFC East, everybody kind of knotted up - all of a sudden you start looking at it and we have ten games left to go. We have a real shot at this thing. We have to come out and play."