How Detroit Lions OC Ben Johnson is making the most of limited play-calling chances

Detroit Free Press

If training camp is the precursor to his calling offensive plays this fall, and that remains the expectation, Ben Johnson certainly looks the part.

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell insisted again Friday he has not decided who will call plays on offense this season, but Johnson is “doing a hell of a job” so far.

“I like what he’s doing,” Campbell said. “I feel like he’s got a good handle of certainly the things that we thought we were going to be able to do here with (Jared) Goff and these receivers and up front, implementing, but also knowing that, ‘All right man, this may be a little much at this point.’ There’s a lot of things that we’re wanting to put in and he’s wanting to, but you got to just kind of gauge it. At some point it’s like, ‘All right, that sponge is full now.’”

Johnson said it’s hard to put a percentage on what part of the playbook the Lions have installed nine practices into training camp, but that “a good foundation” is in place.

In his first season as offensive coordinator at any level, Johnson has manned the walkie-talkie communication system to the quarterbacks at every practice this summer, as he did during open workouts in the spring. And by ending most practices with a got-to-have-it, two-minute period, Campbell has given his likely play-caller a smidge of experience juggling game-like situations.

On Thursday, in what Campbell called the Lions’ “most intense” practice of summer, Johnson helped bail the first-team offense out of a second-and-long to score a would-be game-winning touchdown.

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In a situation designed to mimic some of the late-game spots the Lions found themselves in last season, Campbell gave his offense the ball, down six points and at the defensive 41-yard line with 31 seconds on the clock.

Goff scrambled for 13 yards on first down, then took a sack on the ensuing play, leaving the offense in second-and-17 from the 35 with 18 seconds left. Working without a play script, Johnson called for a deep shot to DJ Chark, who beat safety DeShon Elliott to make a diving catch in the end zone.

Chark celebrated by firing the ball into the air, and Johnson ran to the end zone to greet him with a pat on the butt.

“Give up a sack, that’s not good,” Campbell said. “But we had a timeout and you use it and look, man, just because something bad happens, it’s not over. And we hit the shot to Chark. That’s a hell of a throw by Goff, hell of a play. It was a hell of a protection. So from an offensive standpoint, listen, that’s why you’re doing it. It’s what we’re looking for.”

Because he is working mostly off a pre-planned practice script, Johnson said there is not much experience to be gained calling plays in practice outside of the two-minute periods the Lions have run in three of their five practices this week.

On Tuesday, Goff led the Lions’ first-team offense to a 48-yard field goal in an end-of-half situation that sputtered after a strong start.

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On Thursday, in a second two-minute drill with the second-team offense, Trinity Benson dropped a would-be touchdown on the first play from scrimmage before the drive was stalled by penalties and a sack.

And Friday, in a similar end-of-game situation to the one the Lions set up Thursday, the second-team offense failed to cross midfield with David Blough at quarterback.

“It’s a work in progress,” Johnson said. “I think I’m happy with where we ended (Thursday) with the ones at least able to take a tough situation like that with only 30 seconds left on the clock and be able to come out with a touchdown. We talk about it, we go over it as a unit every single day, just the thought process, the play call, why we’re doing this, when we need to do this. And so I think it’s not just the play caller, I think it’s everybody understanding what we’re trying to get done.”

Assuming he continues calling plays, next week’s preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons will be the next step for Johnson and the offense as the Lions gear up for the regular season.

Lions center Frank Ragnow said the offense feels ahead of where it was at this time last season, and that Johnson helped the process by keeping some terminology from former coordinator Anthony Lynn’s playbook in place.

Johnson has condensed much of the verbiage this season, and the Lions are trying to play at a faster tempo and want to feature more play-action passing. Campbell is “very pleased” with the results so far.

“I think we’re right on course,” Johnson said. “This time of year is, it’s not only learning our scheme and what we’re going to be really good at, but we’re also evaluating. We’re evaluating the players and what they could potentially do for us and help us out, but we’re also evaluating some new schemes, too, and some things that maybe we haven’t had a ton of experience with. So that’s kind of the process of where we’re at right now.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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