Breaking down RB Kerryon Johnson, predicting role in Detroit Lions’ offense

05/22/2018
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My feelings about the Detroit Lions’ draft class are well-documented. From my thoughts on Twitter (@RussNFLDraft) to their running back woes. Personally, I’m a fan of the players Detroit selected in the 2018 NFL draft, but I’m not too fond of the method by which those players were added. You can’t move picks from next year’s draft class when you don’t even know what’s happening with this current team.

The piece linked above looks at the Lions’ history of selecting running backs in the mid-rounds and not trading up. It’s a stupid rule, sure, but when you look at Detroit’s running back situation, you may understand my frustrations.

Putting my frustration aside from how the Lions attacked the draft, I’m going into the Summer with an open mind – a fresh start, if you will. With that being said, I’ll take a look at Kerryon Johnson from a different angle. Beyond his 2,400 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns on 519 rushing attempts at Auburn, there is a solid running back prospect.

Will he light the NFL on fire? Time will tell. But for now, he’s in a crowded backfield. The Lions’ have name-players like Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah, and LeGarrette Blount to replace Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner. But with Kerryon Johnson in the mix, Detroit now can use four running backs with different skills. Let’s break down just what to expect from Johnson and what the former Tiger brings to the table.

The Film Room 

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One of the Lions’ longest runs of the 2017 season is shown in the play above. They run 11 personnel (one tight end, one running back) out of a Pistol set. Often times, the Lions will put Golden Tate in motion, keeping the opponent honest. Tate can take a jet sweep and dash down the sideline but just as easily take a quick shovel pass from the same pre-snap motion.  But there are cases were Tate is a decoy and they hand-the-ball off and go away from the motion.

In this case, Ameer Abdullah does just that – taking the handoff and immediately looks to get outside in space.

While he attempts to stretch beyond the right tackle, he cuts this back inside and finds an opening. This leads to a 34-yard gain for the Lions and one of their largest runs of the season.

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The Auburn Tigers ran a similar concept, but with the quarterback under center, rather than out of the Pistol formation the Lions did.  After faking the jet, Kerryon Johnson takes this designed trap play and attempts to run through the A-gap. Before he can even get going, the left tackle allows the defensive end cross his face and disrupt the backfield. This allows the linebacker to bend down the LOS  (line-of-scrimmage) and record a tackle for loss. Kerryon avoids contact the best way he can but he has limited space. If the Lions’ offensive line can’t stay on the field, he’ll have to spend a lot of time avoiding tackles in the backfield.

Here’s another example of the Tigers running a fake jet-motion and giving to the running back, instead. This is a read-option play and the Lions will never run a read-option with Stafford. However, the point of this run is the fake jet-motion and Johnson avoiding would-be tacklers and gain positive yardage. He makes a nice cut on the linebacker (#23) and keeps his feet long enough to gain an extra yard or two before being tackled. It’s one of the positives to Kerryon Johnson’s game, he’s able to avoid tacklers with his cutting ability on a consistent basis.

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One of the most common run plays in football is the split-zone run. The Lions can run this play from multiple formations. Whether  from a shotgun set, the pistol or even under-center with a single-back look. For instance, they run the split-zone from under-center but their offensive line does a terrible job getting to the second level. It allows the Vikings linebackers to scrape over the top and fill the cutback lane for Ameer Abdullah. This was a common theme for the Lions, this past year.

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Auburn runs the same concept but out of a different formation. The blocking upfront is great and you’ll even see the center get to the second level. This can happen on a consistent basis for the Lions and they have to hope that Frank Rangow can be that player that gets downhill with ease and aggressiveness.

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If you’re a Lions fan, you just took the biggest gulp of your life. Or maybe you just sighed, I’m not really sure. However, how can we not forget about the Lions running a toss play out of shotgun on 3rd down and one-yard to go? They were on the road and it was a pivotal point of the game. The offense needed something to get itself going and this is what they ran. Ultimately, they didn’t get the yard and it was nothing but disappointment.

As for the Kerryon Johnson run, the result looked eerily similar to how the Lions ran it against Tampa Bay. For Kerryon, he gets the toss but is unable to make it to the edge.

Not all of the toss plays Detroit ran resulted in negative yardage, but watching just several plays shows that Johnson has much more success on them than his peers.

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New Vision in the Backfield? 

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One of the biggest problems for the Lions were how their running backs lacked the vision to notice cut-back lanes. On this play, you’ll see that there is a lane right off the left hip of the center. All the offensive lineman step down to their left and rather than cutting this back inside, Abdullah continues to take his path to the outside. Clearly, the Lions need to do a better job setting the edge but the Lions running backs rarely follow their blocks. They have a tendency to bounce outside and try to get the edge. If Abdullah, cut this back inside, he has the burst to get positive yards.

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With Kerryon, you’ll see him let his blocks develop in front of him. He also displays great burst once hitting the open field. He consistently displayed this for Auburn and can easily do this for the Lions.

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On the play above, this is a great example of Kerryon putting matters into his own hands. He does a great job creating for himself and here’s a prime example of his vision, burst and change-of-direction ability to work in his favor.

Kerryon or Le’Veon? 

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More times than not, Kerryon Johnson gets discussed as the next Le’Veon Bell. Personally, I don’t think that Kerryon is as consistent as Le’Veon. However, that doesn’t mean that he can’t become more consistent. With how the Lions have approached their offensive line and have vastly tried to improve it, anything can happen.

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Where can Johnson improve?

There are absolutely weaknesses to Kerryon Johnson’s game and a reason why he was taken in the second round of the NFL draft. Injuries are a bit of a concern he’s dealt with numerous hand ailments since High School. Johnson’s undergone two shoulder surgeries and suffered injuries to his hand, ribs and ankle.

Surprisingly, he only missed four games in three collegiate seasons. It’ll still be worth monitoring on Sunday’s though because injuries are hard to avoid in the NFL. Especially, at the running back position.

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While his vision and cutting ability is a plus, there are times that he does too much. On this play, you’ll notice that Kerryon tries to cut on theNo. 8 overall pick of the 2018 draft, Georgia LB Roquan Smith. Get used to seeing these two try to run each other over on Sunday’s because Smith got drafted by the Chicago Bears. Rather than continuing down the path, Kerryon tries to cut back on the best linebacker in the country. Take what you can and just keep it moving.

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Kerryon will also run with a high pad level and it’s the biggest issue he has. In the run play shown above, you can see him get tall, failing to lower his center of gravity as he approaches the line of scrimmages. He does what he can, given the space he’s given and despite some slight hesitation, he finds a tiny hole to run through.

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This is another example of Kerryon running far too upright. The edge rusher does a nice job getting in the backfield and disrupting the play before it gets started but you’ll notice how upright he is on while approaching the line-of-scrimmage (LOS). One benefit to showing this play is that it provides an opportunity to see the versatility Johnson brings to the table. He can play anywhere, and on this play, Johnson gives Detroit the option to utilize the Wildcat formation. There’s a slim chance that it happens but that option is on the table. One option that isn’t on the table is how upright that he runs. He needs to lower his center of gravity before getting to that opening.

My Final Thoughts:

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For the Lions’ offense, things will look slightly different. At least, that’s the plan. By drafting, Frank Ragnow in the first round and adding a versatile offensive lineman in Tyrell Crosby in the fifth round, the Lions offensive line is the best it’s looked in years. Of course, health is a major concern.

During the off-season last year, the Lions opened the checkbooks and signed right tackle, Rick Wagner to a five-year deal worth $47.5 million. They also signed right guard, T.J. Lang to a three-year deal worth $28.5 million. For both players, it was an easy decision to sign the contract. However, they both played hurt and they both missed six games combined. Also, it didn’t help that Taylor Decker started the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and missed eight weeks to start the season. Regardless, the Lions had 10 different starting offensive line combinations for the 2017 season and it played a big part in why they were ranked as the worst run-blocking offense by Football Outsiders.

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Adding players to their offensive line isn’t the only way the Lions are trying to improve. In the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Lions selected Nick Bawden from San Diego State. It’s the first time the Lions selected a fullback in the NFL Draft since they selected Michael Burton in the fifth round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

As you can see in plenty of the film posted, Auburn ran plenty of two-back sets. By having a legitimate fullback in your backfield, it should provide comfortability for Kerryon Johnson. Keep in mind, the Lions translated Nick Bellore from linebacker and made him a situational fullback for the 2017 season. Getting a true fullback for this offense should help the initial blocks get going and will open the door for offensive lineman to attack the second level.

Finding positive runs for the Lions offense was a hard task. But the visuals for the Lions rushing attack is more so to see what they have looked like schematically. By firing Ron Prince, their former offensive line coach and run game coordinator, this rushing attack should get going. Also, Jim Caldwell was a very conservative coach and many fans have thought that he held this team back.

As a fan, I can’t disagree. It’s interesting to note though, the Lions hired Matt Patricia to be their head coach but made him keep Jim Bob Cooter as his offensive coordinator. It’ll be interesting to see how this run game transpires for the future.

There are plenty of mouths to feed in this backfield. The Lions signed LeGarrette Blount in the off-season to a one-year contract. His role will be simple and that will be in the red-zone and for short yardage. With 186 receptions over the last three seasons combined, Theo Riddick has a defined role. That role is the pass-catching back and the third-down guy. It’ll depend on the down and distance but more times than not, he’ll be catching passes out of the backfield.

Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner will be camp bodies and could make it through parts of the pre-season but ultimately, their chance of making the 53-man roster is slim to none. That leaves Ameer Abdullah and Kerryon Johnson. It sounds shocking since we’re only three years removed from drafting Abdullah but his name could certainly be on the trade block. His value has diminished and at this point, he might be a change of pace back. Not staying healthy and not taking advantage of his opportunities has prevented him from ever being the starting back for this team, unless there are injuries.

Lastly, Kerryon Johnson is the safest back on the roster. Unless of course, something drastically changes between now and the start of the season. He won’t be your every-down back but it would be surprising to not see him as your starting back. He’ll get a variety of carries from a variety of situations. He can run from the Wildcat formation, can run behind a power blocking scheme or even a zone blocking scheme. He has the ability to create and a lot of that is due to his patience, vision and change of direction. Ultimately, he’ll be the first and second down back and that’ll be the best way to keep a defense on their toes. It should also keep him healthy while giving him the opportunity to grow as a runner.

While, I don’t agree with how the Lions traded up and took a running back, I’ve made that obvious. However, Kerryon is a very talented running back. He has the all the talent in the world to grow and become an every-down back. With how the Lions approached their offensive line and are trying to make it better, you have to feel confident that Kerryon can be the first Lions running back to crack 1,000 yards in a season since 2013. Furthermore, it should allow the Lions to have a 100-yard rusher in a game for the first time since 2013, as well. There’s always risks to drafting a running back and the Lions history don’t bode well for them but there’s no reason to why they can’t right the ship and re-write their history.

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National Scout for Cover 1. Host of Cover 1 | The NFL Draft Podcast. NFL Draft Enthusiast. X's and O's. Heard on ESPN Radio, FOX Sports Radio and CBS Sports Radio.

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