After years of futility from the backfield, the Detroit Lions found a lead-dog in running back Kerryon Johnson.
As a rookie, the back displayed a combination of speed to the edge, power, quick moves in a phone booth, and decisiveness. The skill set allowed Johnson to bust Detroit’s streak of 70 games without a 100-yard rusher last season.
Johnson’s workload increased after the Lions’ Week 6 bye, as he became the focal point of the backfield. Then a knee injury wiped away the final six games of his rookie campaign.
Looking at the Lions’ current corral of ball carriers, it’s assumed Johnson should get an even larger heaping of the duties in 2019. Coach Matt Patricia, however, wants to focus on not overworking Johnson this year, especially coming off a knee injury.
“Regardless of Kerryon, I think it’s a position-specific thing where those guys, they take a lot of hits,” Patricia said at the Annual League Meeting in Phoenix this week, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. “They’re in those situations a lot where their bodies are taking some pounding so you want to be conscious of how many plays they’re getting, especially early on in the year. And obviously, we just want to win. That’s the most important thing. But you do have to look at big picture and say, ‘OK, great, we could win a couple now, but if we wear this guy out and he doesn’t help us in the long run then what’s the trade off?'”
The Lions telegraphed their intent by scouring the open market for backup-caliber running backs this offseason. With the Rams matching the offer sheet for restricted free agent back Malcolm Brown, the Lions continue to search for a back to pair with Johnson.
The LeGarrette Blount experiment failed horrifically last season as a power-combo with Johnson. Theo Riddick remains a pass-catcher out of the backfield, and Zach Zenner is no more than depth at the position. Detroit appears a prime candidate to select a back in the mid-to-late rounds of next month’s draft.
Regardless of who the Lions add, the offense should be centered around Johnson in 2019, even if the workload is curtailed slightly to keep the running back fresh.
“The thing about it, and it’s no different from any player going from Year 1 to Year 2, it’ll be a whole different set of circumstances for him next year,” Patricia said. “Teams will definitely identify him differently. Teams are going to come at him differently. They’re going to put more pressure on him. So is the passing game, is the run game, is the blitz-pickup game going to look the same? We don’t know. But what I do know is, he loves the game, he works extremely hard. This guy wants to win. He cares. So I know he’s going to get better, we just got to see how he responds to the different looks that he gets from the other coaches.”