HOUSTON — Houston’s Steve Slaton and Tennessee’s Chris Johnson were two of the best rookie running backs in the NFL last season.
Slaton was the top rusher among rookies with 1,282 yards and Johnson was third behind Chicago’s Matt Forte with 1,228.
Their careers have taken very different turns this season as they prepare to meet tonight when the Texans host the Titans. The Texans (5-4) are trying to remain viable in the playoff chase with a win. The Titans (3-6) are looking for their fourth straight win to move farther away from their 0-6 start.
Johnson has established himself as one of the top running backs in the NFL and led the league in rushing with 1,091 yards entering this week. Slaton has been mired in a fumbling funk that kept him out of the starting lineup in Houston’s last game and he has just 359 yards rushing.
While Slaton hasn’t had a 100-yard game since December against the Titans, Johnson is thinking about 200-yard games. He has one this season, but laments finishing just shy of the mark with 197 in Tennessee’s 34-31 loss to Houston in Week 2.
“I was kind of upset I didn’t get 200 yards,” Johnson said. “I’m going to try and get that.”
He knows Houston’s defense has improved since that game. The unit allowed a league-worst 205 yards rushing through the first three games, but has given up just more than 60 a game in the last six.
The Texans held Johnson to 65 yards rushing in the last game in Houston, a 13-12 win by the Texans.
Johnson, who has rushed for at least 100 yards and two scores in three straight games, said he worried about the dreaded sophomore slump.
“In fact, that was my biggest fear after my rookie year was a sophomore slump,” he said. “I didn’t want to have no sophomore slump. I didn’t want nobody to say my rookie year was a fluke. So that was my No. 1 fear, so that’s why I worked so hard in the offseason.”
Johnson has rushed for 100 yards five times this season, including a season-high 228 yards against the Jaguars. He’s scored nine touchdowns and is averaging 6.4 yards a carry.
Slaton has more fumbles (7) than touchdowns (6) this season and his season-high is 76 yards. Coach Gary Kubiak hasn’t said if he’ll return to his starting role this week after he was replaced by Ryan Moats two weeks ago against Indianapolis.
“It’s been very frustrating,” Slaton said. “Anytime you put the ball on the ground it’s very frustrating, and doing it on a consistent basis is bothering, but hopefully I can change around in this half of the season.”
Slaton has tried everything to correct his problem and spent the bye week watching a tape of former Giants running back Tiki Barber and asking some former coaches for advice.
“Tiki had a real big problem, just like myself,” Slaton said. “So I think, if he got his fixed, why can’t I get mine fixed?”
Slaton hopes he can get past his struggles and help the Texans to their first playoff berth and has nothing but compliments for Johnson.
“He’s doing everything the coaches ask for,” Slaton said. “Anytime he gets the ball he’s making plays. And just for me, I just want to get back to where I was before.”
Johnson has one fumble this season, but said it’s difficult because defenses go after the ball on every play.
“Defenses are so good these days, they have special techniques on how they strip the ball from you and make you fumble,” he said. “But you’ve just got to be cautious of it. It’s a bad thing: He’s a good running back, but he’s been having some fumbling problems.”
Despite his troubles, the Texans remain confident that Slaton can get back on track and help the team.
“In Year 2 it’s been a lot tougher than Year 1 for him, but one thing about Steve that’s been constant is his work habits haven’t changed,” Kubiak said. “He’s giving us everything he has, he just needs to clean up hanging onto the ball, and for us to play well in the next seven weeks, Steve will have to be a big part of it. I know I’m counting on him.”
The first time Houston faced the Titans this season, Kerry Collins was at quarterback. This time the Texans will have to deal with Johnson and Vince Young and the dual running threat they present.
“Vince changes things, as you all know,” Houston’s DeMeco Ryans said. “He can run the ball in crucial third-down situations. When it’s third-and-4 and third-and-5, we have to definitely keep our eyes on him because he can make the play. He can go run for the first down.”
Titans at Texans
8:30 p.m. today
Reliant Stadium in Houston