Detroit Lions’ Jamaal Williams can top 1,000 yards, break Barry Sanders TD record vs. old team

Detroit Free Press

He was a complementary piece in Green Bay, one the Packers were content to do without when he hit free agency two years ago. And even when he found refuge with the Detroit Lions, Jamaal Williams was billed as a spell back and locker room leader whose biggest contributions were bound to come off the field.

That’s been true in some ways.

Williams has been every bit the positive veteran influence the Lions hoped when they made him the only free agent they signed to a multi-year deal in Dan Campbell’s first spring as head coach. He’s the heartbeat of the team, a friend to everyone, someone who keeps things upbeat even in tough times.

But as he prepares to face his old team Sunday in a high-stakes matchup with a playoff spot potentially on the line, Williams is closing in on one of the best seasons by a running back in Lions history.

He needs 6 yards to reach 1,000 yards rushing for the first time in his career, and to become the first Lion to hit that mark since Reggie Bush in 2013.

Just six Lions ever have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season — Bush, Kevin Jones, James Stewart (twice), Barry Sanders (10 times), Billy Sims (three times) and Steve Owens — and Williams is one touchdown shy of tying Sanders’ franchise record of 16 rushing TDs.

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“He’s been a bell cow for us all year long,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said Thursday. “Really, it’s been the steady 3-, 4-, 5-yard gains for the most part, and then he does have the ability to break some tackles as well and I think he’s had a couple 50-yarders as well this year. We think extremely highly of him. He’s been consistent for us as a runner.”

Williams opened the season as D’Andre Swift’s backup but emerged as the Lions’ lead back when Swift missed time with injuries early in the year.

He already has set career-highs in rushing yards (994), attempts (246) and touchdowns (15), and he’s logged double-digit carries in all but one of the Lions’ 16 games.

Last week, Williams ran for a career-high 144 yards on 22 carries to lead the Lions to a 41-10 win over the Chicago Bears. He had runs of 40 and 58 yards, and nearly scored a touchdown on the latter that would have tied Sanders’ record with Sanders watching from the sideline.

Asked about accomplishing that feat this week, Williams told reporters, “I’d just be grateful just to be in that category with Barry.”

“It’d make me a good running back, I guess,” Williams said. “I mean, Barry’s a great running back so I’ve been watching him for – on YouTube; I wasn’t here to watch him, but watching him on YouTube. … (He’s) a legend, so I’m just grateful for that opportunity, to be able to be in there with somebody like that.”

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Williams said reaching 1,000 yards — he never had more than 556 in his four seasons with the Packers — is “a great accomplishment” and something that’s “been a long time coming” in his sixth season.

“But I know that this is just a stepping stone for me and I got more to go,” Williams said.

Williams’ contract is set to expire in March, and the 27-year-old told the Free Press last month he hopes to return to Detroit in 2023. He declined to say where talks with him and the organization stand Thursday, though he once again indicated he wants to remain a Lion.

“Do I want to come back? Hmm, let me think about it,” Williams said. “Spent two years here, doing great. Hmm. Do I want to come back? Do I want to come back to more blessings and actually being good? Hmm, let me think about that one. That’s your answer.”

The Lions (8-8) need a win against the Packers on Sunday and a victory by the Los Angeles Rams over the Seattle Seahawks to make the playoffs for the first time since Williams’ final college season at BYU in 2016.

More than topping 1,000 yards or breaking Sanders’ TD mark, Williams said it’s his goal to make that happen.

“I’d be happy just to get 1,000 no matter who we play,” Williams said. “But it’s more important about us just getting a dub and that’s really what I want from us is just to go out there in Lambeau and get a (win).”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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