The NFC North is a division stacked with talent. From Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense in Green Bay to Khalil Mack and the Bears’ defense in Chicago, no team is without an explosive, game-changing playmaker. For the Detroit Lions, that game changer could be rookie running back Kerryon Johnson.
As the Lions’ second-overall pick in the 2018 draft, the former Auburn standout has a smooth and patient running style that has been compared to stars like Le’Veon Bell. Johnson used his natural ability to have an explosive college career, earning the SEC player of the year award in 2017 after rushing for 1,391 yards and 18 touchdowns. Now, it seems Johnson is having success translating his standout skills in college into the NFL.
After a slow start to the season, the Lions finally snapped a five-year long streak of not having a game with 100 rushing yards thanks to Johnson. The standout rookie rushed for 101 yards on 16 carries and propelled Detroit to a 26-10 victory over New England for their only win of the season. In an ironic twist, the Lions traded up with the Patriots to draft Johnson with the No. 43 overall pick in the 2018 draft. It’s also important to note that New England is the second-worst in the NFL against the run. Nonetheless, following Johnson’s breakout game against the Patriots, it’s looking like he could become one of Detroit’s biggest offensive weapons on a team that has struggled on the ground for years.
Much like the Packers’ rushing woes of previous seasons, the Lions have had a difficult time developing a sustainable ground attack. Under Lions’ first-year head coach Matt Patricia, Detroit has made an increased effort to build a much-needed impactful ground game to help relieve some of the pressure on veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Through the last three seasons, the Lions have ranked in the bottom five for overall rushing offense, with last year being their worst performance on the ground yet. In 2017, Detroit ranked dead last in the league, averaging just 76.3 yards per game and totaling only ten rushing touchdowns on the season with the bulk of the carries being completed by third-year running back Ameer Abdullah. Detroit also stacked up 61 runs for negative yards to make them the 10th worst in the league.
However, through the first quarter of the season the Lions have already seen a significant bump on the run. Detroit currently ranks 20th in rushing yards and seventh in yards per carry (4.6), much of that thanks to Johnson and despite having only one touchdown on the season, he could prove to be the Packers’ biggest rushing challenge to date.
It’s no secret the Packers’ defense was absolutely dominant against Buffalo rookie quarterback Josh Allen, but it’s also necessary to point out that the Packers did an excellent job of stifling running back LeSean McCoy who rushed for just 24 yards on five carries. Being able to stop McCoy was even more notable following the Packers’ inabilities to contain Adrian Peterson the week prior. Peterson rushed for 120 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
Through four weeks, the Packers rank 16th for rushing defense and have allowed an average of 4.5 yards per carry. On the flip side, Detroit has faced defenses similar to the Packers, with the Jets sitting at 17th overall, the 49ers at 15th and Detroit sitting at 13th against the run.
If the Packers hope to continue their defensive hot streak into week five, much of the focus will need to be on stopping Johnson on the ground. Going on the road against a divisional opponent always adds extra weight and Matt Patricia has made it clear that he’s dedicated to using Johnson as much as he can. With the Packers’ previous struggles against Peterson and the Redskins, it could be a weakness he’ll look to exploit even more.
If Green Bay can push past Kerryon Johnson and the Lions this week and a banged-up San Francisco 49ers team the week after, they’ll be sitting at a comfortable 4-1-1 in a tough NFC North division going into their week seven bye.