Running back Kerryon Johnson likes what he sees in his role and where he fits in the Detroit Lions’ offense under new coordinator Darrell Bevell.
By reputation, and what he’s seen in training camp and the preseason games, Johnson expects to be a key player in the offense as the Lions open the regular season on the road against the Arizona Cardinals.
“He likes to run the ball,” Johnson said this week. “I play running back. That should mean good things.”
Johnson, and any of the other running backs, should not be the only beneficiaries of Bevell’s offensive plan based on his record in 13 previous seasons as an offensive coordinator. He spent six seasons with the Minnesota Vikings (2006-10) and seven with the Seattle Seahawks (2011-17) and was out of football last season.
Bevell’s offenses have had a strong, physical presence up front that also allowed the quarterback to take deep shots downfield. That has been dramatically missing in the Lions’ attack of late.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford’s average of 6.4 yards per pass attempt last season was his lowest since 2010, when he played only three games, and ranked him in a four-way tie for 24th. He was tied for 25th with 67 completions of 20 yards or longer and tied for 23rd with 44 of 40 yards or longer.
Johnson showed as a rookie last year that he can be a contributor in the passing game. He was not used often in that role at Auburn.
Although he was limited to 10 games by a knee injury, Johnson showed that he could be a legitimate lead back.
He rushed for 641 yards and three TDs, with an average of 5.4 yards per carry. He went over the 100-yard rushing mark twice – 101 yards in a Week 3 win over the Patriots, and 158 with a long run of 71 yards in a Week 7 road win over the Dolphins that got the Lions won-loss record even at 3-3,
Head coach Matt Patricia has said often that Johnson will face tougher challenges this season because teams can use game tape to prepare for him.
“It’ll be a big challenge for him this year,” Patricia said. “Kerryon’s going to see different things from a front standpoint – different things from coverage and the rest of it, and how they play when he’s out there.
“I think it’s going to be a challenging year. I think it’s going to be difficult. He’s working hard every single day. He’s great as far as that’s concerned."
Series history: The Lions have a 33-28 series lead, with five ties. The Lions have won the last two meetings – 35-23 on opening day of 2017, and 17-3 last season on the road in Week 15.
2018 game rewind: The Lions never trailed, taking a 10-0 lead on a field goal by Matt Prater and Darius Slay’s interception return for a touchdown late in the third quarter. Zach Zenner’s TD run with 4:05 left clinched the win.
Stafford passed for 101 yards on 15 completions in 23 attempts. It was the fewest passing yards of his career in a winning game. The 15 completions were his second fewest in a winning game. He had 14 in a win over the Packers earlier in 2018.
Lions focus: offensive line: It’s still a work in progress, with scant time playing together caused in part by an injury sustained by center Frank Ragnow in preseason Game 3.
The Lions have used a heavy rotation in training camp and preseason games, but assistant coach Jeff Davidson does not downplay the benefit of communication and playing together.
“It is not overrated,” he said. “The truth is you’d love to play with five guys who get used to playing shoulder to shoulder football. We do have the benefit of guys I feel and trust would go in there and do that. We practice that way every day.”
Cardinals: focus, pass rush: Terrell Suggs had more sizzle than speed when he entered the NFL as a rookie in 2003, and not much has changed.
Suggs, nicknamed T-Sizzle, is expected to bring the heat as an edge rusher in his first season with the Cardinals, much like he did in compiling 132.5 sacks in 16 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens. That includes seven sacks in 2018 at the age of 35.
“He’s such a savvy player ... brings energy to the meeting room, the practice field,” Cardinals first-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury said this week. “The level of play and the quick twitch, being able to get off the ball and having a feel for things, it’s phenomenal.”
After leading the NCAA in sacks with 24 for Arizona State in 2003, Suggs’ draft status was downgraded by some when he was timed in the range of 4.8 and 4.9 seconds for the 40-yard dash seconds at his Pro Day in March. He did no better a month later at an individual workout.
Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome ignored the 40 times and drafted Suggs 10th overall. He was off and running – straight to the quarterback. He had 12 sacks as a rookie and made seven Pro Bowls.
Cardinals sack stat: The Lions’ rebuilt offensive line is facing a severe test from the Cardinals’ pass rush, which ranked fifth in the league in 2018 with 49 sacks.
With Suggs and defensive end Chandler Jones lined up on opposite sides, the Cardinals could exceed that total. Jones had 13 last year after leading the NFL in 2017 with 17.
Prediction: I am 100 percent certain about this prediction: Win or lose, the majority of us will say Monday morning that this was the Lions’ most important opening game in decades. And it might be. The Lions need something good to happen and not spend another season fighting from behind. This is a game that’s set up for them to win. Cardinals rookie Kyler Murray might be an NFL star eventually, but Sunday is not eventually. Keep him in the pocket and relatively contained, and it should be a big win for the Lions.
Pick: Lions 27, Cardinals 13.