Lions OC Ben Johnson an ‘evil mastermind … drawing up plays to take over the world’

Detroit Free Press

It wasn’t the 85 points Dan Campbell joked he’d need to cede play-calling duties this spring, but the Detroit Lions scored enough points and produced enough big plays — while leaving plenty of both on the field — in Sunday’s 38-35 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles to think they might have something in new coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense.

Johnson handled offensive play-calling duties Sunday and earned high marks from both his boss and his players despite the disappointing outcome.

The Lions hit an early first-half funk when they failed to pick up a first down on four straight drives, but still finished the week as the third-highest scoring team in the NFL (with Monday night’s Denver Broncos-Seattle Seahawks game still to go).

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Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs put up 44 points in their Week 1 win over the Arizona Cardinals. Jalen Hurts and the Eagles hung 38 on the Lions’ overwhelmed defense. And just one other team — the Super Bowl-contending Buffalo Bills — topped 30 points in a week when many NFL teams are still working out the kinks from training camp.

Last year, the Lions finished 25th in the NFL at 19.1 points per game.

“We felt like we could’ve scored 50 today,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said after the game. “We left a lot of points out there. It wasn’t — you tip your cap to the Eagles, they’re a damn good team. But we shot ourselves in the foot all day long.”

With Johnson’s help, the Lions were able to overcome enough of their self-inflicted mistakes to score more points than they did in all but one game last season — their Week 18 win over the Green Bay Packers, when Johnson had taken over as pass game coordinator and the Packers played their backups half the game.

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D’Andre Swift had the best game of his career, running through gaping holes for 144 yards on 15 carries, and the passing game had more explosive potential than Goff’s final numbers (21 of 37, 215 yards) indicate.

Goff averaged 8.2 intended air yards per attempt Sunday, which was significantly improved from 2021, when he ranked last in the NFL in the category at 6.6 air yards per throw.

The Lions fell behind 17 points early in the third quarter, so game script certainly factored into those numbers. And the Lions have better talent on offense now than they did a season ago, when their offensive line was young and banged up, DJ Chark was playing in Jacksonville and Amon-Ra St. Brown was a rookie getting his feet wet in the NFL.

But the unit showed enough promise against one of the league’s more talented defenses to think the praise heaped on Johnson this summer was not hyperbole.

The Lions drove 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown on their opening drive, overcoming two false start penalties and a dropped pass on the possession. Swift had a 50-yard run on the second offensive play, and Johnson seemed determined on the drive to break tendency. Swift’s big run came on second-and-11, a clear passing down. Johnson called another handoff to Swift on second-and-20 that went for 11 yards. And on their first goal-to-go snap of the day, a first-and-goal from the 5, he gave the ball to Jamaal Williams (for a 4-yard gain) knowing full well how inefficient the Lions were in red zone rushing last year.

The Lions offense sputtered the next four possessions, when Swift touched the ball four times and a bunch of short passes by Goff went awry, including one that Eagles cornerback James Bradberry returned for a touchdown.

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But Campbell explained some of what the Lions were trying to do early was set up plays for later in the game.

“Some of this stuff to get it downfield you’ve got to set it up a little bit and it’s hard to do that, particularly in the first half when you can’t stay on the field to set up the routes you want to double move or (whatever),” Campbell said. “We were able to do a little bit more as it got late, or in the second half and took advantage of that. Or much better, anyway.”

Goff hit three deep passes in the final 35 or so minutes of the game, to Chark (for a touchdown), St. Brown and Josh Reynolds, and he narrowly missed a few others.

Reynolds had a would-be touchdown glance off his finger tips with the Lions down 10 points early in the fourth quarter when Goff put a little too much zip on the ball. Reynolds beat Bradberry on an over route on the play, symmetrically designed to mirror one Chark was running on the opposite side of the field. The play started with a bunch formation in close proximity to the tackle box, a staple of Johnson’s offense, and included a run-fake toss to Swift that had the Eagles safeties and linebackers charging towards the line of scrimmage.

A few minutes later, Goff overthrew a bomb to Chark, who had one-on-one coverage from Bradberry along the sideline, as Kalif Raymond ran a post route in the middle of the field to occupy the safety. On the next play, Goff overthrew an open Raymond out of a bunch formation and heard boos from the crowd.

“I thought (Ben) did great,” Goff said. “He was calm, he was very under control and thought he did great. I think we found a little bit of our identity there in that second half of who we want to be and what we want to do, and I think he settled in there as well as we did.”

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Johnson, a first-time coordinator at any level, will have an array of challenges going forward. Goff must be better for the Lions to have a chance to succeed this season, and smart opposing coaches will start compiling tape on the Lions’ offense as they construct gameplans to stop Swift.

Known in NFL circles for his intelligence and creativity, those are the traits the Lions hope Johnson can use to make good on his reputation as a budding star.

St. Brown called Johnson a “genius” in one clip from the HBO series “Hard Knocks,” and Chark told me last week he sees Johnson as “a little evil mastermind.”

“I feel like when we go home he’s in his lair drawing up plays to take over the world,” Chark said. “His thought process and when he shows us the plays and he shows us the coverages and show us what they do, it was like, ‘Yeah, you’ve definitely, you’ve taken time. You’ve definitely put in work. You see the vision, you see where he’s going with the plays and you just got to execute.”

The Lions did not execute well enough for long stretches Sunday, on either side of the ball. That’s why they sit at 0-1 as they prepare for their Week 2 matchup with the Washington Commanders.

But offensively they showed enough promise to believe scoring will not be an issue this season and Johnson is the right man for the job.

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“Certain coaches, they just have it,” St. Brown said. “I don’t know how to explain it. He’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever seen. He wants to put all his players in the right plays. He knows what his players do well and what they don’t. He maximizes our abilities as an offense I feel like. And he has that young brain, he’s driven, he’s open to new ideas. I think he’s going to be really good.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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