MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Kerryon Johnson saw the hole open up on the left side of the offensive line. It was the first play Sunday afternoon and everything happened exactly the way the rookie from Auburn thought it might.
The blocks from his linemen and receivers were perfect. In the heat against the Miami Dolphins, the openings were there all day.
In the Detroit Lions‘s 32-21 victory over Miami, something big seemed possible for Johnson on every play. Give him a sliver of space and he can make something happen. Give him more room and better blocks and even bigger things can happen.
“In my mind, that’s great. That means I know what those guys up front are doing and I know our game plan is going to stay true to itself,” Johnson said. “So, it definitely gives me confidence, gives them confidence. The crowd energy goes up, our energy goes and then the key is to carry it through four quarters, which we did.”
They ran left, right and up the middle. They ran for short gains, medium gains and a 71-yard gain that Johnson said was his longest run since high school. The Lions registered 248 rushing yards against Miami, Detroit’s best total since Nov. 23, 1997.
Barry Sanders rushed for 216 yards that day (in another game in which Detroit won by scoring 32 points) in an era when Detroit was known more for its running than its passing. That’s not quite happening here with these Lions, even though Johnson’s 158-yard game was the most for a Lions back since Jahvid Best had 163 on Oct. 10, 2011.
Lions left guard Frank Ragnow has seen this before, when he was at Arkansas. His team faced Johnson’s at Auburn every year. It went about as well for the Razorbacks then as it did for the Dolphins on Sunday.
“He beat us up,” Ragnow said. “I’m not going to lie to you. He ran all over us at Arkansas. I definitely am not surprised by his success. He’s been talented in the SEC for a while.”
Four weeks ago against the New England Patriots, Johnson snapped the team’s four-year drought of 100-yard rushers, and he was even better Sunday. His emergence offers Detroit a different type of offensive structure, particularly when the Lions start fast. Johnson gained 106 of his yards in the first half.
“It allows us to be more dynamic,” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “Because now, obviously, you got a running back coming in who has 100 yards like that, they are going to focus on him. Then you can bring in a LeGarrette [Blount] or you can bring in me — they are bouncing around like, ‘How the heck are we going to stop all these guys?’”
This started in April, when the Lions convened for the first time under new coach Matt Patricia. He craved balance and physicality. A consistent, respectable run game, which the Lions never had under previous coach Jim Caldwell, makes play-action more effective. It keeps teams from dropping too many players into coverage against the Lions’ talented receivers.
It allows Detroit to manage the clock — and the potential outcomes, because a strong run game can wear down a defense. It is something the Lions hadn’t had in half a decade.
“It changes everything,” receiver Marvin Jones said. “Obviously, when you can run the ball, you control. And that’s the big thing. That’s what we did. You look at all of our wins — we’ve been able to do that and control the ball. That’s how it was today.
“We ran it whenever we wanted to, at will; and if we needed a play in the passing game, we threw it and made the play. To have that control is great and it’s a tribute to the line, the work that they put out throughout the week.”
Every Lions player mentioned the line after Sunday’s victory. General manager Bob Quinn invested so much in the line over the past three years since his hiring in January 2016: two first-round picks (left tackle Taylor Decker and left guard Ragnow), two highly-touted free agents (right guard T.J. Lang, right tackle Rick Wagner) and a third-round pick who has become dependable (center Graham Glasgow).
He spent this offseason changing the running backs, signing Blount and trading up in the second round to select Johnson. Both moves have worked. In Johnson, the Lions have found a stabilizer and difference-maker in the run game.
And it has led to more success and a confidence that the entire offense can be dynamic, because if Detroit can run, there are possibilities to do almost anything.
Johnson spent close to 10 minutes after the game sitting in front of his locker, taking well-wishes from teammates and ribbing from Blount. He sat there, clad in an Auburn shirt, ready to go. He wasn’t bothered that on the perfectly blocked 71-yarder in the second quarter, he got caught from behind.
“Look, since high school, I’ve been caught from behind enough times for me to know it’s just how it happens in life,” Johnson said. “You know, but I ain’t ran 71 yards in a long time, so I was proud of myself.”
In the best Lions rushing day in two decades, Johnson gave a glimpses of the team’s present and future — one that looks loaded with potential. That, more than anything else, is a reason not to worry.