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Even in triumph, the Detroit Lions take a hit

Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece from reporter Kyle Meinke.

DETROIT — Even in triumph, the Detroit Lions lose.

I don’t mean to sound so negative, I swear. There was so much to like in Detroit’s unexpected 20-19 win Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Like Kenny Golladay, who fully extended for the game-winning touchdown. Or Darius Slay, who ran 82 yards to bring down D.J. Moore from behind and keep points off the board. In a one-point win, that’s kind of a big deal.

Oh, and the defense held Carolina to 56 rushing yards on 16 carries. Don’t look now, but that’s three straight really stout performances on the ground. That Snacks Harrison guy seems to be pretty good after all.

Hey, even the special teams, which haven’t been so special all year, planted Carolina inside its own 10-yard line three times and allowed minus-1 yard on punt returns all day. 

There was a lot to like in this game, and you can’t take that away from this team. They fought, when so many others were ready to give up.  

But what does any of it matter if Kerryon Johnson’s knee is mangled?

That’s the big question coming out of this one, and there’s just no getting around it. The rookie running back has been a sensation this year, doing things few others have managed in the post-Barry Sanders world. 

He’s averaging 5.4 yards per carry, which ranks sixth in the league, just ahead of Melvin Gordon, Todd Gurley and Ezekiel Elliott. Hey, that’s pretty good! He ranks second among all rookies in total offense, trailing only Saquon Barkley.

He has brought legitimacy to the Detroit Lions running game. And his separation from the rest of this roster, particularly at his position, was on full display against Carolina.

Johnson had barely finished lacing up his cleats before he had gashed the Panthers for 42 yards on the opening drive, then plowed his way into the end zone for an 8-yard touchdown.

That’s a big play. Remember, the Panthers opened this game by marching 90 yards for a touchdown. After the Seahawks, Vikings and Bears all sprinted to early double-digit leads, it felt like this game could have gotten away from Detroit too. Instead, Johnson almost single-handedly kept it afloat. 

Just ask Matthew Stafford, who has waited the better part of a decade to have this kind of support in the backfield.

“He’s just obviously a great runner when you hand it to him,” Stafford said. “He does a nice job in the backfield when you throw it to him, he had a nice play on screen here today. He’s got some big-play ability. You see some 20-plus (yard) runs, and I’ve got the best view in the house. I’m right behind it sometimes and splits a guy, splits the scene and he’s out.”

By late in the third quarter, Johnson had 97 yards of total offense. The rest of the Lions roster combined for 126.

Then disaster struck.

Johnson fell to the turf, clutching his left knee. He managed to get to the sideline on his own, then walked into the locker room with trainers. NFL Network reported the Lions believe the injury is only a knee sprain, so maybe it’s not serious. Of course, David Chao, former team doctor for the San Diego Chargers, said he believes the injury could be an ACL tear. Such an injury would require at least eight months of rehab, which puts Johnson on course to return in time for training camp. Maybe.

But even the glass-half-full side of the equation is a problem. Knee sprains usually require weeks, not days, of rest. Tight end Michael Roberts missed three games with a knee sprain this year.

And the Lions play the Chicago Bears in three days.

You remember the Chicago Bears, don’t you? The guys who just punched Detroit in the face last week? Who have one of the five best defenses in all of football? Who held Detroit without a point until they had a 26-0 lead?

And that was with Johnson on the field.

He was a bright spot for the Lions that day, rushing for one touchdown, catching another and finishing with a team-high 89 yards on 20 touches. Now just imagine what they’ll do without him.

We don’t even have to imagine. We saw it against Carolina on Sunday. And while the Panthers certainly don’t have the Bears’ defense, the results were frightening yet. LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick combined for — wait for it — 1 yard on 8 carries.

For those scoring at home, that’s 4.5 inches per carry. 

“(Injuries) are the nature of football,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “You hate to see it, but you know that there are teams week in and out playing with injuries. Obviously, we’d love to have those guys out there because they are big-time playmakers for us, but I think the guys who stepped in did a great job.”

But they haven’t done a great job. Blount, who is Johnson’s top backup, has carried the ball 21 times for 16 yards in the last month. He simply has not been great. He’s been effective in certain power-rushing situations, and that’s the extent of it.

Johnson has been the difference-maker for an offense that has been devoid of them, especially since the Golden Tate trade. And nothing matters more than his availability at this point. Not with the Bears on tap, who just allowed 17 yards on 13 carries by Vikings running backs on Sunday night. And then the NFC-leading Rams after that.

The win is nice. It keeps the wolves at bay. It’ll liven up the locker room a bit, and maybe even loosen up this team. But there was a pall cast of the locker room too. They know just how good this kid is. And if Johnson can’t go, or God forbid if it’s an ACL, this win will prove to have been achieved at great expense.

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