Free Press sports writers Shawn Windsor, Dave Birkett discuss the Lions’ offseason, 2019 outlook and Matthew Stafford, after loss to Bills, Dec. 16.
Dave Birkett and Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press

With the playoffs no longer a possibility, the Detroit Lions are taking the prudent approach with their promising rookie running back.

The Lions placed leading rusher Kerryon Johnson on injured reserve Wednesday, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, with the knee injury he suffered in a Nov. 18 win over the Carolina Panthers.

A second-round pick out of Auburn, Johnson helped transform the NFL’s worst rushing offense last year into a respectable unit this season and appears to be a big part of the Lions’ future.

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He leads the team with 641 yards rushing on 118 carries despite missing the last four games, and in September he became the first Lion to rush for 100 yards in a game since Reggie Bush in 2013.

Johnson had two 100-yard performances in his first two months as a Lion — he rushed for 101 yards in a Week 3 upset of the New England Patriots and went for 158 yards a month later in a win over the Miami Dolphins — and impressed his teammates and coaches with his vision, patience and versatility.

Johnson averaged 5.4 yards per attempt this season, currently the second most of any player with at least 100 carries, and caught 32 passes for 213 yards.

“He just does everything well,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said earlier this year. “He can catch the ball out of the backfield, he’s a smart player, he’s got good vision. He’s a slippery runner. He’s got probably a little bit more strength than people give him credit for, a little bit more speed. It doesn’t maybe jump off the page to you, but when he’s out there he’s really efficient and does some really nice things.”

Johnson, who ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing at the time of his injury, hurt his left knee late in the third quarter of the Panthers game, when he reversed field on a handoff to the right and was tackled by two Carolina defenders.

The rookie limped to the Lions bench, where he was examined by team doctors, and got emotional as he walked up the tunnel on his way to the locker room. He’s declined interview requests the few times he’s been in the locker room since his injury, but teammates have said he’s remained in good spirits.

Johnson is the third offensive starter the Lions have lost to injury this year, joining right guard T.J. Lang and wide receiver Marvin Jones on injured reserve.

Lang played just six games this year because of neck injuries and a concussion, and almost certainly will be asked to take pay cut or be released this offseason. Jones suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Week 10 loss to the Chicago Bears, but is expected back in 2019.

The Lions, who also traded leading receiver Golden Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles in late October, have averaged just 15.5 points per game with Johnson out of the lineup, about a touchdown less than they averaged with him on the field (22.2 ppg).

For the season, the Lions rank 24th in the NFL in total offense, 25th in scoring offense and 24th in rushing offense, though they’ve topped 100 yards on the ground in each of the last four weeks.

Johnson, who doesn’t turn 22 until June, projects as the Lions’ starting running back going forward, but the team will need to address the position again this offseason. 

Veteran LeGarrette Blount will be a free agent after the season and has averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. Theo Riddick continues to be used sparingly in a rushing capacity, and has no more guaranteed money on a contract that expires after next season. And Zach Zenner will be an unrestricted free agent in March, though he could return for his fifth year in Detroit.

The Lions, who’ve lost three of four games since Johnson’s injury, play their final two games Sunday at Ford Field against the Minnesota Vikings and next week against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field with no chance of making the playoffs.

Contact Dave Birkett: Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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