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O'HARA: Sanders heartened by reemergence of the running back position

Barry Sanders is heartened by the reemergence of the running back position and how it is playing a leading role in the NFL's offensive explosion that has teams trading touchdowns as fast as if they were playing a video game.

It's a trend that has touched teams throughout the NFL and has not bypassed Detroit, where rookie Kerryon Johnson has led the resurgence of a dormant running game.

Johnson is part of the young wave of runners with talent and star power who have blessed the NFL.

 "There's such a strong group of good running backs," Sanders said in a recent visit to the Detroit Lions' Allen Park headquarters. "Older backs, newer backs – there's just a lot of good running backs.

"I think there's certainly been a resurgence. There's been that sort of a running back reawakening, if you want to call that."

Sanders speaks from a position of performance and authority. His 10-year career with the Detroit Lions was a carry-by-carry highlight show. He was the most electrifying and elusive runner in history. Fans who cheered for him and opponents who had to stop him held their breath every time he touched the ball.

Sanders has remained a keen observer of football on all levels in retirement, with a particularly close eye on running backs. The list of current backs he likes includes players with different skill sets and experience.

Among them are Kareem Hunt, Todd Gurley, Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Adrian Peterson, Shady McCoy, Zeke Elliott and Le'Veon Bell.

And, somewhere on Sanders' list and with high marks for what he has meant to the Lions, is Johnson.

General manager Bob Quinn traded up in the second round in April to draft Johnson 43rd overall out of Auburn, where he had an outstanding career and led the SEC in rushing in 20117.

Johnson has given the Lions ...

Well, let the expert tell you what Johnson has added, and what skills he possesses.

"What I see is, he's able to find the creases," Sanders said. "He's the type of runner who runs well in the open field. That part of it, really -- just trusting your blockers, trusting your system, and finding those creases.

"And being able to really explode through there and get downfield. That comes with good vision and good anticipation on where the hole should be and things like that.

"You can call it a natural runner, but that's really what I've seen that has made a difference in him being able to get a hundred yards a couple time this year, and he was off to a big day (against the Panthers)."

The injury bug has bitten Johnson a couple times, but through 10 games before he went out with a knee injury, Johnson was among the league leaders in key rushing categories.

Johnson was ninth with 641 yards rushing, and third among backs with at least 100 carries with an average of 5.4 yards per carry.

And in another good class of rookie runners, Johnson ranked fourth in rushing yards behind Saquon Barkley of the Giants, Phillip Lindsay of the Broncos and Sony Michel of the Patriots.

The Lions' futility in the running game has been well documented. It reached a point of embarrassment last season when the Lions ranked last in rushing yards per game (76.3) and yards per carry (3.4).

Before Johnson's arrival this season the Lions' last individual 100-yard rushing game was by Reggie Bush, with 117 yards in Game 12 of the 2013 season.

Including three playoff games, the Lions had slogged through 73 games without a 100-yard runner before Johnson broke the dry streak with 101 yards in a 26-10 win over the Patriots in Game 3.

Johnson added a 158-yard game in a win over Miami in Game 6 and was on his way to another against Carolina when he went out with 87 yards in the third quarter because of a knee injury.

There is no greater beneficiary of Johnson's presence than quarterback Matthew Stafford. His historically high production is nothing short of amazing, given how he has operated with little running support throughout his career.

Whether Johnson has the staying power to have a long career remains to be seen, as is the case for all young players. But his value is not in question.

"He looks like a guy who has some staying power and is going to be consistently effective in the running game," Sanders said. "Based on what we've seen the first half of the season, or 10 games or so, it looks very promising.

"I think that's probably a good question for Matthew to answer," Sanders added in reference to Johnson's value to the quarterback.

"You can look back to certain games the last few years, and everyone could see that we could have used a little more balance. Take your pick of the game, or of the season.

"Look at teams like Kansas City, the Rams or the Saints-- they have really good talented young running backs, and they're having a lot of team success.

"I'm sure Matthew would love to have that as an option some time. He's probably the guy who's the most thrilled about it"

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