Every Play Counts
An in-depth look at a specific player or unit on every single play of the previous game

Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

by Michael David Smith

The late Bo Schembechler would have loved the Kansas City Chiefs' first drive against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

The drive lasted 11 plays, and the Chiefs ran on 10 of them, marching 76 yards for a touchdown. The Chiefs did nothing fancy, nothing surprising, just a whole lot of handoffs to running back Larry Johnson, who showed again in the Chiefs' 17-13 victory that he's one of the best runners in football. The 11 plays on the drive looked like this:

  1. First-and-10: Kansas City lined up in a three-receiver formation, with Johnson as the only back behind quarterback Trent Green. Johnson took the handoff around the right end for a gain of four yards.
  2. Second-and-6: Kansas City lined up with four receivers, a personnel package that prevented the Raiders from keeping eight defenders in the box. Johnson ran to his left for four yards.
  3. Third-and-2: In a three-receiver formation, Eddie Kennison went in motion to the left and threw the key block on defensive end Lance Johnstone, diving at Johnstone's legs to slow him down just long enough for Johnson to run past him for a gain of three.
  4. First-and-10: The only pass of the drive. It wasn't much of a pass at all, as Green tossed the ball to receiver Dante Hall behind the line of scrimmage. Hall sidestepped one defender and picked up three yards before Oakland's Stuart Schweigert tackled him.
  5. Second-and-7: Fullback Kris Wilson lined up in front of Johnson, marking the first time Johnson had a lead blocker. Johnson followed Wilson up the middle for a gain of five.
  6. Third-and-2: Right tackle Kyle Turley pulled to the left and wham-blocked Oakland defensive tackle Warren Sapp, creating the seal that opened up the middle of the line. Johnson ran through the hole for a gain of nine.
  7. First-and-10: Johnson went out for a play, and the Chiefs lined up in an unbalanced line, with an extra lineman to the right. Perhaps thinking Kansas City wouldn't run with Johnson on the sidelines, the Raiders didn't adjust their defense to that run-heavy formation, instead keeping the linebackers and defensive backs deep in coverage. With guard Chris Bober getting the key block, Michael Bennett took the simple handoff over the right tackle and gained 20 yards practically untouched.
  8. First-and-10: Kansas City ran the standard I-formation isolation play. Wilson had a tremendous block on Oakland linebacker Thomas Howard, and Johnson broke Schweigert's tackle for a gain of 18.
  9. First-and-10: By this point, the Raiders knew the handoff to Johnson was coming, and rookie defensive back Michael Huff lined up close to the line, playing linebacker in a 4-4 defensive alignment. It worked for Oakland; Huff (an outstanding young player) tackled Johnson after a gain of just three.
  10. Second-and-7: Johnson took a handoff up the middle, and the Chiefs left Raiders defensive end Derrick Burgess unblocked, thinking a defensive end couldn't get to the middle in time to make the play. That was a mistake; Burgess showed that he's one of the quickest defensive linemen in the league, getting into the middle of the line quickly enough to trip Johnson up for a gain of just two.
  11. Third-and-5: For just about any other team, this would have been a passing down. But the Chiefs knew what they wanted to do and weren't going to be dissuaded. Tight end Jason Dunn lined up on the right and blocked Burgess, Wilson went in motion to the right and destroyed cornerback Fabian Washington, and Johnson ran behind them around the right end for a five-yard touchdown.

As my colleague Mike Tanier recently noted, the average gain on a running play in the NFL is about four yards, but a few very long runs -- 50, 60, 70 yards or more -- skew that average. On Sunday Johnson ran 31 times for 154 yards, averaging five yards a carry, even though his longest run was that 18 yarder on the eighth play of the opening drive. The median carry in the NFL is three yards, and the mode, or most common result, is two yards. On Sunday Johnson's median run was four yards and his mode was five yards. Churning out that kind of yardage consistently is the way to win with a run-oriented offense. (For comparison's sake, consider the game earlier this season in which Chester Taylor of the Minnesota Vikings had 26 carries for 169 yards against the Seattle Seahawks. By conventional stats, that looks like a better game than Johnson had against Oakland, but 22 of Taylor's 26 runs went for four or fewer yards, and not a single one of those 22 runs picked up a first down.)

You might be thinking that Johnson's big day was in large part because he was playing against Oakland. But it's important to remember that the popular perception of Oakland as a terrible team is incorrect. Oakland is a terrible offense, but Oakland's defense is good. You might also be thinking that Johnson runs behind a great offensive line in Kansas City. A few years ago, the Chiefs had the best offensive line in football, but that line doesn't exist anymore. The best player on that line, left tackle Wille Roaf, is retired, and the next-best player, guard Brian Waters, missed Sunday's game. Center Casey Wiegmann is 33 years old and nowhere near the player he was in his 20s. Guard Will Shields is two years older than Wiegmann. There's a reason Priest Holmes couldn't even average four yards a carry last year.

The weaknesses of the Chiefs' offensive line were glaring on a second-and-2 in the second quarter, when Johnson was stuffed at the line of scrimmage for no gain. Three Oakland players -- Huff, Howard, and defensive tackle Tommy Kelly -- converged on Johnson at the line of scrimmage. Johnson can break tackles, but no running back would have picked up any yardage with three players hitting him like that before he could get to the line.

After all that straight-ahead running on the first drive, Kansas City offensive coordinator Mike Solari did get a little bit fancy. On the first play of the second drive, a fake end-around caused Oakland defensive end Tyler Brayton to take a step in the wrong direction, and that one step opened up just enough space for Johnson to take the handoff and get through the line for a gain of five yards. All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez missed Sunday's game, and although Green seemed to miss him in the passing game, Solari made up for his absence by using Wilson and Jason Dunn in two-tight end formations. Both Wilson and Dunn are superior blockers to Gonzalez.

On second-and-5 on the first play of the second quarter, Turley lined up as an eligible receiver as Solari called for the increasingly popular six-lineman formation. However, the six-lineman formation often tells the defense exactly what the offense wants to do, and in this case it caused the Raiders to put eight in the box and sell out to stop the run. Johnson couldn't find much room, but he made the best of the situation, pushing forward in the pile for a gain of three.

Being strong enough to push a pile is important, but Johnson's greatest strength is the way he accelerates through the smallest of holes. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Johnson ran over the left tackle. The hole was tiny -- six Raiders were in the vicinity -- but he managed to make himself skinny enough to squeeze through and pick up 17 yards. Two plays later, Johnson gained 17 yards again. That time he got a nice block from Turley, who lined up at right tackle, pulled all the way across the field and kicked out Howard. After watching Sunday's game, I came away much more impressed with Turley than I had been previously this season. Although he's much smaller than he was in New Orleans and struggles against bigger linemen, he's very quick.

I also liked what I saw of Bennett, who spelled Johnson effectively. Johnson already has 248 carries in 10 games this season, and that kind of workload is almost impossible for a running back to keep up. If the Chiefs run Johnson more than 400 times -- and he's on pace for 397 carries -- they will destroy their best asset for years to come. Bennett can be a nice change of pace for Johnson because in terms of straight line speed, he is probably the fastest running back in the NFL. He has never shown the necessary ability to break tackles to become an elite runner, but if teams keep playing pass when Johnson leaves the field, expect Bennett to break a lot of long runs.

Kansas City has played 19 games since Johnson took over the starting running back job. In those 19 games, Johnson has 2,396 rushing yards. Many people were skeptical of Johnson early in his career (including his first coach, Dick Vermeil, who famously said he needed to "take the diapers off"), but everyone now acknowledges that he's one of the game's elite players. There is, however, one lasting criticism. Last season Johnson missed a block on a blitz pickup, leading to a sack that some felt cost the Chiefs a game.

So a year later, is Johnson any better at blitz pickup? I really can't say because the Chiefs don't call on him to do it much. When they pass, they send Johnson out as a receiver rather than keeping him in to block. That might indicate that he's not a particularly good blocker, but he more than makes up for it by being one of the NFL's best pass-catching running backs.

Also, it must be said that quarterbacks are responsible for seeing the blitz coming, and Green struggled with blitz recognition against Oakland. On a first-and-10 in the third quarter, Dante Hall was split to the left with Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha lined up in coverage on Hall. At the snap Asomugha blitzed, leaving Hall all alone. If Green had seen the blitz coming, he could have lobbed an easy pass to Hall for a long gain, but he never even looked to his left. Asomugha drilled him, forcing a fumble.

Maybe some people will find a reason to blame that play on Johnson, who has received a lot more criticism in his young career than most elite players do. But watching him on every play against Oakland, I couldn't find much to criticize.

Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season.


24 comments, Last at 26 Nov 2006, 1:15am

2 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Wait a minute. Larry Johnson is about the 10th highest in DPAR, and 22nd in DVOA. He is the only good thing on his offense all year, so he gets high numbers, but he is not a qualitative leap over many others.

That said, I am really happy to have him on 2 fantasy teams.

3 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

With all the talk about LT being the fastest to 100 TDs, I wonder what pace LJ is on. He's been in the league for a few years, but he really hasn't played all that many games since he was 2nd and even 3rd on KC's depth chart for so long. And he's probably got 40-50 TDs easy by now.

4 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

I haven't watched any of his play except for highlights. My problem with him in college was that he didn't show any ability to cut in the hole or bounce a play. He was big and strong and a great runner when he had a hole to hit.

In many ways he was like Ron Dayne, big and fast, but he did have a significantly better burst than Dayne.

In the highlights I've seen in the last year, I have yet to see him effectively cut in the hole or bounce a play quickly. In the highlights, the O-line has done a heckuva job.

Based on what you have see, how would you evaluate his ability to cut and bounce now?

5 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

re: comment #2

Unfortunately, we really don't have much data on other Chiefs RBs behind this line. What I suspect is that in this situation, DVOAs will be lower than expected. For instance, T.O. just about always posts a low DVOA, but most of the time it is much higher than the overall team DVOA (this year being the exception), which shows how valuable he's been. Same with Deion Branch...he was the only Belichick Pats WR to post DVOAs significantly above team.

7 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Anyone able to average the TDs _per carry_? Where would LT and LJ rank there? Thinking that might help even things out, considering how long LJ rode pine.

8 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

LJ(27) has 42 Rushing, 11 recieving TDs.
LDT(27)has 91 Rushing, 11 recieving TDs, and 5 Passing TDs.

LJ has scored 40 in the past 2 seasons,
LDT has scored 49 in the past 2 seasons.

Theyre the same age, and while LJ was better last year, LDT has been better this year, so I'd call it about even. Basically, LJ is the same age, 54 TDs behind, and getting them at roughly the same rate, so unless something seriously changes, he'll never catch LDT unless he plays significantly longer.

9 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

LDT has
1 TD/21 carries
1 TD/35.4 catches
1 TD/1.8 passes

LJ has
1 TD/17.2 carries
1 TD/8 receptions
No passing TDs

An interesting note is that LJ's TD rate has gone down since he's been the starter, so the lower numbers may just be a sample size issue, or an artifact of being the change of pace back.

10 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Nevermind, LJ only has 5 recieving TDs, not 11, so all those recieving numbers are wrong.

11 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Johnson has 47 TDs in 42 games. That projects to 100 TDs in 89.36 games. Tomlinson hit 100 TDs in 89 games. The big difference is that Johnson has only 22 starts in his 42 games while Tomlinson has started all 89 of his games.

12 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson


Thats true, but at the same time, LDT gets spelled a lot more often than LJ. We see a lot more of Michael Turner than we see of LJ's backup.

I really think Herm is going to run LJ into the ground.

13 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

If what I'm looking at is accurate, LT didn't get his 47th TD until his 54th game. LJ got there 12 games faster if he's to that point after 42.

If LJ avoids injury, he probably has a good shot at getting to 100 in fewer games than LT. All his carries are obviously a concern in the injury department, but this is the same guy who says he doesn't get warmed up until he has 30 carries, so who knows.

14 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Re: 4

Dayne had a damn good burst himself. Johnson, however, unlike Dayne, was a superb receiver and all around athlete, in addition to being big and strong and able to find the hole.

I never understood the knocks against Johnson as a college running back. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Ki-Jana Carter and Reggie Bush, I haven't seen so dominant a college RB as Johnson, and I never understood why he wasn't considered a consensus top pick. To this day I remain flabbergasted that McGahee was ever considered the superior prospect at the time, and I'm talking about before he tore his knee up. I think a lot of the lingering resistance to accepting the fact that Johnson legitimately is one of the best RBs in the NFL stems from the fact that so many people predicted that he would be a bust when he entered the league, and they can't bring themselves to admit that they were dead wrong.

15 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

14. There were actually some good reasons why LJ was not considered a top prospect. He didn't start until his senior year, and he didn't perform well against the top teams Penn State played when he did start. He rolled up some huge games against IU and other mediocre opponents.
I'm a Penn State fan, and if I recall correctly he was under 100 yards in all four of PSU's losses his senior year.

16 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

LDT also started his career on some pretty crappy Charger teams where he was often the only option at all. LJ started his career behind one of the best lines in football. Comparing their careers just doesn't work. Comparing their last three years, maybe, but given the durability of RBs generally, you'd think that would give the edge to LJ. I'd still give the edge to LDT for his clear advantage as a receiver. LJ is above average, but LDT is one of the best catching receivers ever. (And no, I haven't looked that up, but I'll stick with it).

17 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

I'd love to know how teams have been defending the Chiefs this year. I've only had 2 games on in my area and so I don't know if teams are stacking the box. Given a weaker O-line, that would explain his early saeson strugles and the Chiefs' nice passing DVOA, wouldn't it?

18 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

#15: That attitude actually confuses me a bit. So, he was able to run up huge numbers on inferior opponents (much bigger than anyone else who faced them that year), but struggled a bit against better opponents. Umm - isn't that kind of expected? And hasn't it been shown over and over again, including here at FO, that teams run less when they are losing? So, was it LJ's fault for not getting the yards when PSU was behind, or was it PSU's fault for getting behind and not running enough?

This really feels like something Pat should weigh in on.

19 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

LJ amazes me because he is so dominant and strong despite running higher than any other good NFL RB I have ever seen.

20 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

19 Do you recall Dickerson or OJ? They struck me as pretty upright runners. Actually, Dillon in his youth reminded me of Dickerson, though I saw more of him in his one year at UW than his career in Cincy.

IIRC, Dickerson is the only one who clearly was not broken by the rule of 370 carries. Look out LJ!

21 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Isn't it funny any team could've had LJ for a 2nd round draft pick? Something strange about the state of scouting around the league.... although I wonder how much Vermeill's comments were motivation.

22 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

#4: You didn't happen to see LJ's cut in the hole last night vs. Ian Gold did you? That's as sweet a move as any I've seen in a long time. LJ has all the tools.

23 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Watching the Thanksgiving game against Denver after reading this, I really focused on what LJ was doing. Denver actually played well, the backers were flowing to the rush. What LJ does really well is make the first man miss, especially in his own backfield. Even when his blocking was not that good, he kept making that first guy miss. You're not supposed to be able to do that in the pros. There's no way to quantify vision and timing, but when you see it you know why one guy's a special back and another guy's just an athlete.
And you called it, as long as they play pass when Bennett comes in, he's going to rip off big ones.

24 Re: Every Play Counts: Larry Johnson

Re #18
I was an LJ doubter entering the season. His college productive was largely racked up against inferior opposition (the Big 10 his senior year had a number of AWFUL run defenses, and LJ took full advantage), while he averaged sub-4.5 ypc in all 4 of PSU's losses and failed to break 100 in any of the games. Rather than running to win, PSU failed to win because they couldn't run effectively. My attitude is probably colored by my strong suspicion that "running when you win" is much more important in the NFL, where you can assume the existence of at least a semi-competent passing attack on every team, something demonstrably not correct for otherwise quality teams in the NFL (see, for example, ranked teams Georgia Tech and Arkansas going a combined 9-41 this weekend). My subjective observation of LJ in those losses, further, was that he looked more like a guy than a star RB. My working hypothesis entering this year is that he was a back supremely able to take advantage of holes, but was otherwise unexceptional. I haven't seen much of KC this year (darn relatives without NFL Network), but it sounds like (i) he's better able to exploit smaller holes than he was in college and (ii) his game has qualitatively improved otherwise. Nothing I can say about my earlier pessimism but mea culpa.