Kerryon Johnson earning high praise for doing the dirty work in Detroit Lions’ backfield

Detroit Free Press

He played 20 snaps, touched the ball three times for a total of 30 yards and did not score a single point, but Kerryon Johnson drew effusive praise from Detroit Lions coaches Tuesday, with one calling him MVP of the Lions’ 26-23 upset of the Arizona Cardinals.

“Kerryon, really, to me was player of the game,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “He was phenomenal in his protection pickups, in all the little detailed nuances that we needed, particularly on Jesse’s touchdown. He was a huge part of that play.”

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It was Kerryon Johnson's blocking and decoy ability, not his running, that drew heavy praise from coaches.

The Lions’ leading rusher the last two seasons, Johnson has embraced a complementary role this fall after the additions of D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson.

Peterson, a future Hall-of-Famer, made his first start as a Lion against the Cardinals and had 22 of the team’s 27 rushes for 75 yards. He leads the Lions with 209 yards rushing this season, nearly double the rest of the team (108 yards).

Swift played sparingly against the Cardinals, but led Lions in snaps each of the first two weeks. He dropped the potential game-winning touchdown against the Chicago Bears, but has established himself as the Lions’ two-minute back.

Johnson has 18 carries for a modest 62 yards on the season, but running backs coach Kyle Caskey said he’s excelled doing things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.

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“Some of the things we’re putting him in, it’s just a trust factor,” Caskey said. “There’s a big trust factor with me, with the quarterback, with Bev, with Matthew (Stafford). Everybody trusts him to do this, so he’s really embraced it. He really, this past game, I mean there’s a lot of things you said that’s not going to show up in the stat line, but he had one of the best games for a running back in a long time. … He really sprung a lot of the big plays for us.”

Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson (33) celebrates a touchdown by jumping into the stands with no fans during the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers play the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2020.

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Johnson set the key pick on Jesse James’ second-quarter touchdown, running a decoy route that James used to free himself from safety Deionte Thompson for an easy catch.

He also ran for a first down in the red zone, when he made a defender miss in the backfield after Halapoulivaati Vaitai failed on a block; had a key blitz pickup on a third-and-10 conversion with the Lions backed up near their own goal line in the fourth quarter; and in what Caskey said was maybe his best play, blocked two blitzers on a third-and-4 conversion on the Lions’ game-tying field goal drive.

“It’s just stuff like that,” Caskey said. “Stuff that you’d have to really be watching the game and seeing that because that’s not going to show up. Those kind of stats, (Pro Football Focus) may find a blocking stat for it or something like that, but it’s those kind of things. It’s keeping the quarterback clean, being able to ID the defenses and stuff like that. That’s really where he stuck out this past game.”

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Bevell indicated that Peterson will remain the Lions’ lead running back going forward, and Caskey said he’s anxious for Swift to eventually show the world why the Lions thought enough to draft him high in the second round.

Running backs Kerryon Johnson (33) and D'Andre Swift (6) talk with linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin during Detroit Lions training camp Thursday, August 20, 2020 in Allen Park.

Johnson, though, will remain an important, if unsung, part of the backfield rotation going forward. 

“He’s been all team, all in, willing to do whatever we’ve asked him to do,” Bevell said. “We told him that we were going to make the switch, and he handled it great. But we told him like, ‘Hey, here’s your role. It’s this.’ It’s a huge part. Protecting the quarterback on third downs, being in those situations, being the spell runner. So he’s still a part of things, but I just appreciate how he’s handled it, I appreciate the work that he puts in. It’s still important to him. He wants to be out there and I think it showed in his play. I mean, it gives me confidence to be able to put him in really in any situation.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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