NFL Rookie Head 2 Head: Slaton vs. Johnson

Steve Slaton (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Anytime you draft a player there's always a lot of uncertainty. But Steve Slaton and Chris Johnson appear to be two playmakers that are ready to emerge. Scout.com's Chris Steuber puts Slaton and Johnson Head 2 Head as the Texans and Titans get ready for their divisional matchup.

If you’re sitting on your couch anxiously anticipating the action that’s about to be displayed on your high-definition television through the magic of DIRECTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, you will find a variety of games that will be showcased at 1:00 p.m. this weekend, and unfortunately not one of them stands out as a showstopper.

Sorry…

But while you’re flipping through the channels trying to find the best game, check out the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans matchup that features two explosive rookie running backs, Houston’s Steve Slaton and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson, who are about to make their mark on the NFL.

The Titans enter this weekend with a 2 – 0 record, and a huge part of their early success has to do with the play of their defense, which has allowed just 8.5 points and 202 yards (60.5 on the ground and 141.5 through the air) per game. But, another reason for their success is because of the elusive dimension that Johnson brings to the field.

A speedy, shifty runner, Johnson brings the complete package to the football field. He’s an elusive runner on the edge and between the tackles, as well as an accomplished receiver out of the backfield who’s slippery in the open field. He has great burst and vision and gets through a seam quicker than a hiccup. He’s a patient runner who hides between the trees and suddenly appears catching the opposition out of position. 

Well known for his 4.24, 40-time at the Scouting Combine, Johnson has been nothing short of amazing in his first two professional games. In his debut against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Johnson had 15 carries for 93 yards and three receptions for 34 yards. One of the three receptions Johnson corralled resulted into the first touchdown of his career.

The following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson captured his first 100-yard game, as he finished with 19 carries for 109 yards. Johnson failed to reach paydirt in consecutive weeks, but he had an impressive 51-yard scamper that left the Bengals defense gasping for air and the Titans sideline witnessing something special.

Across the field on the visiting sideline, Slaton doesn’t want to see the Titans celebrate another standout performance by Johnson at his team’s expense; that would be a new experience for Slaton.

During the three years that Slaton, who declared for the draft after his junior season, was at West Virginia, the Mountaineers played Johnson’s East Carolina Pirates all three years and were  3 – 0 in those contests. Slaton starred in two of the three games, while Johnson played in all three, but was limited in the 2006 matchup due to an injured foot that caused him to miss two games.

Last season, in West Virginia’s blowout 48 – 7 victory over East Carolina, Slaton and Johnson were healthy and didn’t disappoint. Slaton had 18 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown and also caught three passes for 42 yards, while Johnson had 14 carries for 76 yards and a touchdown and caught three passes for 13 yards.

At times it was like watching the same player, as they bring many of the same qualities to the field and are similar in stature; Slaton is 5-foot-9, 200 pounds and Johnson is 5-foot-11, 200 pounds. And when you break them down in a scouting report, the similarities are uncanny.

Slaton is a dynamic runner who can change the pace of a game. He displays excellent vision and is able to run between the tackles. He's explosive around the end and has outstanding cutback ability. He's a patient runner who allows blockers to set up in front of him and is able to hit the seam quickly. He's a threat out of the backfield catching screen passes in the flat or running a post pattern; whenever he touches the ball great things tend to happen.

In the Texans first game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who like the Titans also have a tough defense, Slaton showed promise, but didn’t have the success Johnson enjoyed in his debut, rushing for just 43 yards on 13 carries. The Texans defense struggled to stop a potent Steelers rushing attack that racked up 183 yards on the ground and resulted into a disappointing 38 – 17 loss. The adversity they faced on the field during their opening game was nothing compared to what they faced just a few days later.

The city of Houston and the Texans dealt with a disastrous situation over the last week or so. The wrath of Hurricane Ike stormed through Houston, postponing the Texans Week 2 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, and in the end caused severe damage to the roof of Reliant Stadium, putting their October 5th home game against the Indianapolis Colts in jeopardy.

Looking ahead to Sunday, it will be good for the Texans to get back on the field and have a little normalcy back in their lives. But getting back on the field means that Houston has to deal with Johnson, which could prove to be a daunting task. The Texans defensive line, a line that includes Mario Williams and Amobi Okoye, is built to rush the passer, not defend the run; they allowed 114 YPG last season. This is a game where linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Zac Diles will have to step up and contain Johnson when he gets to the second level.

The Titans are a much better run defending team. Last season, Tennessee finished fifth in the league in run defense and allowed just 92 YPG. Albert Haynesworth and Tony Brown are outstanding interior linemen, who control the middle and fill the gap. Their linebackers and defensive backs are physical and play close to the line. The Titans will try to control the Texans offensive line and take away the running lanes from Slaton.

This promises to be an exciting game between two division rivals that have promising futures and two future stars that are ready to take the next step.



A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber's features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: csteuber@scout.com.

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