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O'HARA: Lions know run game needs to improve

Direct questions about the dire need for the Detroit Lions' running game to improve and where rookie Kerryon Johnson fits got equally direct answers from assistant coach David Walker.

There was no dancing around the question.

In a pre-training camp interview session with the Lions' media Thursday morning, Walker answered like it was one of his players lowering his shoulder and hitting the hole on first and goal at the one. Directly.

"I answer that question this way: It has to be better for our team to have the success we want," Walker said. "You've got to be able to efficiently run the football. And if you look at all the teams that have success, they can efficiently run the ball.

"That doesn't mean they run it all the time, but when you've got to run it, you've got to be efficient in those categories."

The running game bottomed out – presumably – in its four-year slide last year to finish last in yards per game (76.3) and average gain per carry (3.4). It was also woefully weak in short-yardage situations.

General manager Bob Quinn continued his project to strengthen the offensive line by drafting interior lineman Frank Ragnow of Arkansas. He is the presumed starter at left guard.

There were two key additions at running back. Veteran short-yardage specialist LeGarrette Blount was signed as a free agent, and Kerryon Johnson of Auburn – the SEC rushing leader in 2017 – was drafted in the second round.

Blount and Johnson are added to a returning group of four veterans – Ameer Abdullah, Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington. Nick Bellore, a veteran linebacker, has been converted to fullback, a position he played sparingly last season in addition to his duties on defense and special teams.

Quinn's statement earlier this year that the Lions are likely to keep four or five running backs in the regular season means there will be tight competition for roster sports and playing time.

There are a lot of variables – with injuries at the top of the list --- but adding talent to the offensive line and at running back should pay dividends.

View photos of Detroit Lions players arriving for 2018 training camp presented by Rocket Mortgage.

The bottom line: It's time for the running game to take some pressure off Matthew Stafford and the passing game.

"We've shown we can be an efficient pass offense over the years," Walker said. "We expect that to continue.

"For us to take that next step, the run game has to improve. That's a lot of different people doing their job better and more effectively. That will be a continual point of emphasis. That started in the spring and will continue, hopefully, through February."

Walker saw Johnson progress on stages throughout the offseason workouts. He has more steps to take. It starts with the opening of training camp on Friday.

Walker has objectives for Johnson to meet, but he isn't concerned about the transition from college to the pros.

"Production – production in the job he has do on that particular play," Walker said when asked what he wants to see from Johnson.

"Whether it's running the ball, running the route, blocking. Just to be a productive player. The moment won't be too big for him. He's been in a ton of big games and high-stress games in the SEC.

"It's not like he played at Podunk U."

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