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Opponents speak of Chris Johnson as if they've just descended from the mountaintop—their words are slow and breathy, their eyes glazed with wonder and disbelief. Rams end Chris Long had that look, that tone on Sunday after the Titans running back parted the St. Louis defense for 186 yards from scrimmage and three scores in a 47--7 victory at LP Field. The second-year pro from East Carolina did most of his damage in the first quarter, scoring on a 39-yard run and a 66-yard reception on consecutive drives. Johnson leads the league in rushing yards (1,626) and yards from scrimmage (2,017) and is averaging 6.0 yards per attempt—better than Eric Dickerson's 5.6 in 1984, when he set the single-season rushing mark of 2,105. Johnson's three touchdown runs of 85 yards or longer this season are more than any other rusher has had in an entire career.
But his most amazing accomplishment could be this: He has people throughout the league rethinking the running back pecking order. The Vikings' Adrian Peterson was the consensus No. 1 after leading the NFL in rushing in 2008 and the NFC as a rookie in '07. Has CJ supplanted AD?
Long is a good authority, considering the Rams are one of three teams to face the two this year. Both are great, he says, "but Johnson can go the distance on any play, and you won't get a hand on him. [Peterson] is going to do something crazy, run people over or put a disgusting move on them. But people don't touch CJ."
SI asked 11 general managers, personnel directors and players whom they'd select if they were starting a team. All the personnel men named Peterson. Said one NFC general manager, "He hits it hard, runs with urgency, has very good vision and speed-size combo."
The players, in contrast, sided with Johnson. "He doesn't have as many weapons around him, but he still makes plays," said Cardinals defensive tackle Darnell Dockett, who faced Johnson and Peterson in back-to-back weeks. "He doesn't fumble like Peterson"—who has lost the ball five times to Johnson's once in '09—"and you can catch Peterson if you have fast guys in the secondary. You're not going to catch CJ."
Peterson is a violent runner who seeks out contact; Johnson looks to make a player miss so he can get past the first line of tacklers and turn on his 4.24 speed. He has outrushed Peterson in every quarter this season, and he has been nearly as good in short-yardage situations, converting on six of eight third-and-twos or fewer (75%) to Peterson's 15 of 19 (79%). But Johnson has no negative rushes in those situations, while Peterson has four.
"If CJ's not as good as Adrian right now, he's fast approaching," says Long. "A lot of guys with speed just want to get to the edge, but he'll be patient and wait to hit the hole. You can tell he's been working on his game. It's scary to think how he's going to get better every year."