Niyo: Running back D’Andre Swift shows he can be star in Lions offense

Detroit News

Allen Park — We heard a lot from the Lions this offseason. And while it wasn’t scripted, it was broadcast, as the Lions opened themselves up to a little bit of everything —  criticism and ridicule on the one hand, optimism and expectations on the other — by volunteering for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” duty.

So in many ways, Sunday’s regular-season opener was a chance to see what all the fuss was about. To see whether the hype matched the reality and if the hopes were pinned to something other than a pie-in-the-sky narrative.

The final answers will take some time to formalize. One game — and one narrow loss to a likely playoff team — won’t tell us everything. And Sunday’s too-little, too-late comeback against the Philadelphia Eagles might not mean all that much come November or December.

But amid all the miscues — from the dropped passes to that fumbled snap, the pick-six or those back-breaking missed tackles — there was something that seemed undeniable Sunday: The Lions have a legitimate star in running back D’Andre Swift. They have a game-breaking talent in the backfield that can be a difference-maker for an offense that’ll need to be the strength of this team in 2022.

And Sunday afternoon, in front of a raucous sellout crowd of 64,537 at Ford Field, we saw what that can mean right out of the gate. Lions quarterback Jared Goff took the snap from center on the second play from scrimmage, handed the ball to Swift and then watched him explode through a perfectly-blocked hole on the left side of the line. Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson cracked down, while Taylor Decker kicked out, and then Swift did the rest, blowing through a pair of flailing tackle attempts by Eagles linebacker Kyzir White and cornerback James Bradberry.

By the time he’d been run out of bounds on the Lions’ sideline by old friend Darius Slay, Swift had picked up 50 yards and nearly blown the roof off the stadium — the sort of sounds we haven’t heard around here in a while. A few minutes later, the Lions took a 7-0 lead on Jamaal Williams’ 1-yard plunge into the end zone, and suddenly all that preseason chatter seemed … plausible, at least.

‘A dynamic player …’

“Look, we’ve got some good players,” head coach Dan Campbell would say later, while lamenting some of the mistakes that led to a 38-35 loss. “But Swift, he is a dynamic player for us. He’s the one guy that can take it to the house from anywhere on the field. I’m glad he’s ours.”

He’s all theirs, and clearly they intend to make full use of Swift’s ability this season. The third-year pro finished Sunday’s game with 15 carries for a career-high 144 yards and a touchdown. He also caught three passes for another 31 yards Sunday, and while that’s probably in the range of where the Lions wanted to keep his workload for a season opener, Swift said he’ll happily take on more.

“Whatever they see fit for me, I’m ready,” he said. “Whatever.”

Whenever and wherever, too, for that matter.

In the preseason, Swift, who battled injuries in his first two years in Detroit, talked openly about some of his individual goals for 2022. He said he was targeting a 1,000-yard season both as a rusher and a receiver, which sounds either idealistic or unrealistic, depending on how long you’ve been a Lions fan.

It’s a mark only three other players have accomplished in NFL history. Christian McCaffrey did it in 2019, Marshall Faulk in 1999 and Roger Craig way back in 1985. It’s one that would require a dramatic leap in production this season from Swift, who finished with just over 1,000 yards combined between his rushing total (151 carries, 617 yards) and receiving numbers (62 catches, 452 yards) in 13 games a year ago.

But is it completely out of the realm of possibility?

“Shoot, I know he’s explosive enough to do that,” said Ben Johnson, the Lions’ new offensive coordinator. “There’s no doubt that would put him in rare company, I know. But he is the type of explosive athlete that can do it, and I do think we have the pieces around him that could help him get there. …

“We’ll see how the season goes, but I would be more than thrilled. That would mean good things for the Detroit Lions if he did that.”

It certainly did Sunday, even after the Lions fell behind by 17 late in the third quarter. It was Swift’s 25-yard pickup on a little swing pass — spinning out of a Javon Hargrave tackle and then breaking a couple more as he bounced down the sideline — that helped spark the Lions’ late comeback. Swift had another critical third-down reception on Detroit’s touchdown drive that cut the lead to 3 with 4:09 left in regulation.

“That’s what we’re gonna do: We’re gonna fight till the clock hits zero,” Swift said. “But we let one slip away from us today.”

They all agreed on that in the postgame locker room. But at the same time, they could also acknowledge this: This version of the Lions offense has much more potential than the one that began last season.

Give ’em health

And some of that has to do with Swift’s healthier, heartier outlook. Last fall, he was still working his way back from a nagging groin problem in training camp. An issue that ultimately affected his output for the rest of the season. But this year, the 23-year-old Swift is benefitting from a refined offseason routine, a problem-free preseason and — as everyone saw in HBO’s behind-the-scenes footage — a daily earful from his position coach, Duce Staley.

It was Staley who planted the double-1,000 idea in his head over the summer. It was Staley who told the rest of the Lions’ staff and front office in one meeting, “I need Swift to believe he’s the best every time he steps on the f—— field.” And it was Staley’s tough-love message that was delivered again and again on the practice field.

“He’s coaching me — that’s his job,” Swift shrugged Sunday, when asked again about all that. “I hear his message, not his tone.”

Sunday, he responded the best way he could. By helping set the tone for this Lions offense, a unit that Swift says can be “as good as we want to be” and one that’ll need his very best to do just that.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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