ALLEN PARK, Mich. – If the Detroit Lions have to play without Kerryon Johnson on Thursday – or for any extended period of time after that – don’t expect that replication to come from one guy. Figure instead the franchise is going to have to take a committee approach.
That’s just how things are likely to go with Detroit after its top rusher and most complete back went down with a sprained knee Sunday in a 20-19 win over Carolina. While the news is better than expected for Johnson – ESPN Insider Adam Schefter reported no surgery is required – it still could alter what the Lions do with their three remaining backs: LeGarrette Blount, Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner.
“With all the guys that’ll go out there, whatever skill position it is and the plays, for us it’s going to be the execution of those plays and certainly Kerryon has a skill set that’s great, just like our other guys do and just try to do the best we can to exploit the skill sets of the players that are out there,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “We have good players. We have dynamic guys, guys that can make plays in different ways.
“It’s not cookie-cutter. Football is not that way. When you have a different player that is in and in the same position, it doesn’t mean they can do the same thing. So you have to be able to adjust with that and do a good job of handling that whatever the situation is, whoever those guys are.”
While Patricia wouldn’t commit to a timeshare among Riddick, Blount and Zenner, it would make sense the three would each get some work. Riddick already has a clear role as the third-down and two-minute back and could see an increase in overall snaps, particularly if Detroit were trailing in a game. He never has been a consistent rusher, but he is averaging 3.33 yards a rush and has 41 catches for 264 yards this year.
Blount is averaging 2.35 yards per carry this season. The 31-year-old has averaged more than 2 yards per rush just once in the last seven games and is on pace for the lowest yards per carry of his career. On Sunday against Carolina, he had 1 yard on seven carries. The week before, against Chicago, he had 4 yards on six rushes.
Then there’s Zenner, who has shown flashes of being a capable between-the-tackles back throughout his career when he has been given a decent workload. He had one of his better games against the Bears, too, including a seven-carry, 36-yard game in 2016, part of a late-season stretch in 2016 when he had the most opportunity and production of his career.
“We’ll just try to get as many reps or whatever situations come up with the guys and see how they handle them,” Patricia said. “For us, I tend it more towards what everybody does well and hopefully we can just go out and execute it.
“I think those guys do have pretty good skill sets. I would say it’s more than just linear. I think there’s probably quite a few things in there that they could do well in the game in different facets so we’re just going to have to do a good job trying to come up with those situations.”
Patricia didn’t rule out adding a running back, but with a short week that could be difficult to get a guy in and ready to play Thursday. One potential option, if the Lions went that route, could be Donnel Pumphrey, who was with the Lions on the practice squad earlier this year before being cut and then signed by Philadelphia’s practice squad. But at this point, that might be unlikely.
So it’s more likely the Lions will go with the three backs that they have for at least Thursday against the Bears. How do the three handle that? Just by trying to stay within the constructs of what they are capable of.
“I can just speak for me personally,” Zenner said. “Not try to do too much. Just stay within your own strengths and try to help out the team as much as you can in that area.
“Not try to go outside of yourself and be something that you’re not.”
Provided Johnson doesn’t play, the Lions will have to do that Thursday and then reassess from there when they think Johnson might be back, what else they have on the roster and if any changes need to be made based off those first two options.