Time For Lions To Set Kerryon Johnson Loose

He deserves more run than he's getting.

Will Burchfield
September 18, 2018 - 1:57 pm

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The Lions drafted Kerryon Johnson to spark their run game, and so far he's delivered. 

The rookie has an encouraging mark of 4.6 yards per carry through the first two games of the season. The discouraging mark? Just 13 carries. That ranks 40th in the NFL. It places Johnson into a tie with -- among others -- Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Why hasn't Detroit's second-round pick received more opportunities? 

"We’re evaluating all our talent," offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said on Tuesday. "We spread the ball around quite a bit. At the same time, game situation has dictated it." 

The Lions never intended to have a bell cow in the back field. Johnson wasn't going to come in and gobble up carries like Todd Gurley or Ezekiel Elliott. GM Bob Quinn made that clear even after trading up for Johnson in the draft, outlining a running-back-by-committee plan. Matt Patricia has stuck to it. 

Along with LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick, Johnson has been part of a three-headed rushing attack. And the Lions have understandably eased him in, using Blount as the starter and Riddick as the primary pass-catcher. Johnson actually leads the trio in carries, but only because Blount, who has 12, was forced out of the season-opener with an injury. 

It hasn't helped any of the running backs, especially Johnson and Blount, that the Lions have played catch-up in their first two games. After falling behind by two touchdowns midway through the third quarter against the Jets, Detroit ran the ball three times the rest of the way. And after digging themselves the same hole late in the third quarter against the 49ers, the Lions handed it off just once. 

Through two games, Cooter has called 107 passes and 30 runs. Johnson, who showed his versatility with 24 receptions last season at Auburn en route to being named SEC Offensive Player of the Year, has been a reliable option for Stafford, turning nine targets into eight catches for 43 yards. In terms of total usage, Johnson has actually been the Lions' top back, with Riddick getting just four carries and Blount just one target. 

Still, it feels like the offense hasn't made the most of Johnson's ability. 

"We’re mixing the run, we’re mixing the pass. Different guys are touching it," Cooter said. "We’re not sort of forcing the ball to anyone. We’re going to keep getting the ball to our best players, and as guys make more plays they’ll get the ball more." 

Of Detroit's three backs, Johnson has been the best one -- and by a wide margin, according to Pro Football Focus. He deserves to see the ball more, starting Sunday night versus the Patriots. New England knows full well what to expect from Blount, and Riddick, a six-year vet, is hardly a secret himself. Johnson is one of the Lions' lone offensive weapons who could pose problems for the Patriots in preparation. 

New England drafted a running back of their own this year, taking Georgia's Sony Michel No. 31 overall. After missing the opener due to an injury, Michel got a team-high 10 carries in a Week 2 loss to the Jaguars, four better than Rex Burkhead and six better than James White. After years of going with a running-back-by-committee -- where do you think Quinn got the idea? -- the Pats may have found a No. 1 guy, at least in terms of the ground game. 

Will the Lions make a similar commitment to Johnson? 

Again, it's unrealistic to think he'll get 18-20 carries per game. But given his young legs, he should start getting more than seven or eight. As for Johnson's history of injuries at Auburn, Quinn said after the draft not to worry. The 21-year-old has burst. He has wiggle. He can run it and he can catch it. It's for these reasons the Lions targeted him in April. They've harnessed his talents early on, but they haven't set them loose.

At 0-2, the time is now.