The Detroit Lions may have the No. 2 offense in the league by points scored, but offensive coordinator Ben Johnson doesn’t quite see it that way. Through two weeks of the season, Johnson seems more focused on the shortcoming of his offense than the successes.
“If anything, the first two weeks have shown us how far we have left to go,” Johnson said on Thursday. “But we’re not—I don’t think anybody right now in that room is necessarily happy or pleased with what we’ve put on tape so far.”
Beyond that, Johnson knows that this is a “what have you done for me lately?” kind of league. It’s incredibly early in the season, and turning in back-to-back-to-back 35+ points games doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.
“It’s two weeks in,” Johnson said. “I mean, it’s—we come back after a game we don’t score, you guys are all turning on us. I mean, that’s the nature of the beast.”
One area of concern for Johnson and the Lions offense is the high frequency of three-and-outs. Per Football Outsiders, the Lions offense has the fifth-highest three-and-out rate, failing to earn a first down on 30.4 percent of drives.
“I think it’s a huge issue,” Johnson said. “And I would say just when you look at the big picture of the game, that first game, the way our three-and-outs came about back-to-back-to-back. That did no favors to our defense, and really put us in a hole early.”
In Week 1’s loss, after the Lions’ opening touchdown drive, the offense failed to pick up a first down in the next four drives. In that time period, the score went from 7-0 Lions to 21-7 Eagles—after Jared Goff’s pick-six. In Week 2, the Lions offense, again, went three-and-out in three consecutive drives. By the time they broke out of it, their 22-0 lead had shrunken to 22-15.
Johnson said the key to changing that is better play calling on first downs. In the Lions’ nine drives thus far that have failed to gain a single first down, they have averaged 1.7 yards on first down.
“The onus, for me at least, is the first-and-10 calls, the drive-starting calls,” Johnson said. “Those need to be efficient plays for us. Whatever direction we go, run, pass, we need efficient plays. As long as we get the first first-down, we feel really good about our chances of going down the field. But you’re right, that’s been our Achilles heel so far is just being able to get that first first-down within a series.”
Johnson is right. As long as the Lions pick up that first down, things have gone quite well for the offense. Here’s a look at the end result of those 14 drives.
Turnover on downs
That’s nine touchdowns, 11 scoring drives, and just two punts.
Is that kind of success sustainable? Hard to say, and that’s why Johnson isn’t patting himself on the back just two weeks into the season. But the promising signs are there, too—starting with Detroit’s running game. Detroit ranks third in rushing yards and are averaging a whopping 3.8 yards before contact on the ground.
“We have really good linemen,” Johnson said. “That certainly helps. We have a really good offensive line coach. I think our backs, our receivers, our tight ends, they all are on the same page with how we want to attack a defense. So I think it’s a combination of all that right now.”
But as good as the running game has been, Johnson wants more from the passing game, saying it needs to “catch up” to the rushing attack. Part of the issue has been the amount of uncharacteristic drops from the receiver group, but the problems go beyond that.
“We’re just lacking in some details, whether it’s a particular split, particular depth,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to look at myself. Are we teaching it right as coaches right now? Is it too much volume? Like those are things that we’re kind of addressing to see how we can make sure we’re accelerating the process.”
The passing offense hasn’t been bad, per se, but there is plenty of room for growth. Detroit is averaging just 6.6 yards per pass attempt (21st) and completing 57.7 percent of their passes (26th)
Lions quarterback Jared Goff is shouldering some of the blame for the average start.
“Just missing DJ (Chark) on that deep ball twice,” Goff said of the team’s missed opportunities through two weeks. “In the first week there was a handful, I can’t quite remember, but there was a handful that we missed that we could’ve had. And missing (Amon-Ra) St. Brown on the shallow in the endzone there, in the rezone, that would’ve been another one. So, like it’s good, but it’s like, ‘Ah, we’ve got so much more left in the tank.’ And hopefully, can reach our full potential as we go.”
The Minnesota Vikings are an interesting challenge this week. While they have only allowed 31 points through two games (sixth best), they are allowing the fourth most yards per play (6.4). They’ve been particularly bad against the run this season, allowing 5.3 yards per carry. But with only two weeks of film on new Vikings defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, Johnson knows he’ll have to stay on his toes this Sunday.
“What they’ve put on tape so far the first two weeks we may not see, because I mean, Green Bay and Philadelphia’s offenses are completely different than ours,” Johnson said. “So, we’re aware of that, but obviously we look at everything from his career as we’re developing the plan.”