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Back breaker; Titans turn loose a threat in Johnson.

Byline: Jennifer Toland

Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson is coming off the least productive season of his career, but that doesn't matter to Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Belichick still recognizes Johnson as a dangerous, explosive threat who will present a huge challenge to the New England defense when the Patriots open their 2012 season on Sunday in Tennessee.

"Everybody is at the point of attack," Belichick said yesterday during a conference call, "because he has the speed to start one way and go the other to get back to the cutback side of the defense or bounce out in either direction. Really, everybody is at the point of attack when he has the ball."

In 2009, Johnson rushed for 2,509 yards from scrimmage, breaking Marshall Faulk's single-season NFL record. After missing all of training camp last year because of a contract dispute and holdout, Johnson barely cracked 1,000 yards (1,047) and scored just four touchdowns.

The 26-year-old Johnson was quiet in the Titans' preseason opener with just 8 yards on five carries against the Seahawks, but broke out for a pair of 14-yard touchdowns the next week against Tampa Bay. Johnson has had a TD run of at least 48 yards in each of the last four seasons.

"Whenever he gets the ball anywhere on the field, he's just one play away from the end zone," Belichick said. "Not only is he a fast back, but he's elusive and shifty with good vision - a big-time home run threat every time he touches the ball."

Locker calling signals

Johnson will be one key component to the Titans' offense, and quarterback Jake Locker will be another. Locker, the eighth overall pick in the 2011 draft, beat out veteran Matt Hasselbeck for starting QB duties.

"I think you can definitely see just the ability that he has to be able to run their offense," Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, "recognize what the defense is doing, get the ball to the appropriate people versus whatever the defense may be running, and be able to read the coverages and get the ball to the soft spot of the defense."

Locker, who starred at Washington, is a mobile QB. He rushed for 385 yards and six touchdowns his last year in college.

Locker got into five games as a rookie and completed 34 of 66 passes for 542 yards and four touchdowns.

Spring prepared Mallett

The release of Brian Hoyer was one of the surprises of cutdown day. Hoyer's departure left second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett as Tom Brady's backup and the only other QB on the Patriots roster.

Many times during training camp, Belichick commented positively on Mallett's progression from last year, and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said yesterday that a very productive spring prepared Mallett for the preseason.

"I think he left spring with a much better feeling of how to operate the offense," McDaniels said. "Then he came into training camp and he's continued to work hard and tried to get better at a lot of different things. Certainly, he's another young player that has an opportunity for hopefully significant growth as a player over the course of time. He works hard, he cares about football, and he's going to do everything that he can do every week to prepare himself to be ready to play if we need him."

According to multiple reports, the Patriots worked out quarterback Mike Kafka yesterday. Kafka, a fourth-round draft pick in 2010, was cut by the Eagles last week.

Several can catch

The Patriots released veteran wide receivers Donte' Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Deion Branch in the span of a few days, leaving themselves - some would say - relatively thin at the position with just Brandon Lloyd, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman, Matthew Slater and newly signed Greg Salas.

McDaniels doesn't see it that way, especially with tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez playing such an important role in the passing game.

"We have plenty of players that can make a contribution on offense," McDaniels said. "Hopefully, every skill player that plays in the game has an opportunity to make some plays for us, whether that be in the backfield or tight end or at the receivers position. We've played with a lot of different variations, a lot of different numbers at certain positions over the course of time, and the guys we've got now we feel good about and are excited to use them on Sunday."

Hilliard signed, Tennant released

The Patriots signed running back Lex Hilliard and released offensive lineman Matt Tennant yesterday.

Hilliard, who played the last three seasons for the Dolphins, signed with the Vikings as a free agent in March, but was released Friday. He has 39 carries for 130 yards and 2 TDs in 48 NFL games.

Tennant, a Boston College grad, was claimed off waivers by the Patriots from the Saints on Saturday.



CUTLINE: Tennessee's Chris Johnson rushed for just 1,047 yards last year after gaining an NFL-record 2,509 yards in 2009.

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Title Annotation:SPORTS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Sep 5, 2012
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