‘We want more’: Lions’ Ben Johnson expects improvement on offense

Detroit News

Allen Park — It was far from perfect, but the Detroit Lions’ offense exceeded most reasonable expectations in Ben Johnson’s first year as offensive coordinator.

To recap, in 2022 the Lions finished fourth in yards per game, fifth in scoring, committed the fewest turnovers in the NFL and posted the franchise’s best rushing average in a quarter-century. Still, don’t think for a second that the team is resting on those laurels.

“I’d like to believe that, certainly, we want more,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “I mean, that is what this game is. We did some good things offensively, but we want more out of it. And I think that is what we are into now and what camp will certainly be.”

Getting more juice from the orange falls on Johnson. Of course, nothing is accomplished alone in the NFL, but as he looks to refine his resume after earning multiple head-coaching interviews this offseason, all eyes are on how the up-and-coming coordinator will take the offense’s production to the next level.

The answer, at least in these early stages of the offseason program, might sound a little boring.

“Our theme this springtime has been back to the basics,” Johnson said. “So, we’ve been harping consistently on the fundamentals, breaking it down to the nuts and bolts for each position group. And our coaches have kind of led the charge on that.”

An important part of the coaching process is the self-scout, going back, watching and critically evaluating what you’ve done. Some of that is done on the fly during the season, but the big undertaking is completed after the final game has been played, ahead of free agency and the draft. And as Johnson poured through that tape with his staff, his biggest takeaways were not what could have been done differently, but what could have been done better.

“I came away from that, personally, even if we didn’t run one new play this year, if we ran all the same plays we ran last year, we would be a better offense because we (can) execute better than what we did,” Johnson said. “We did a lot of really nice things a year ago, but it really means nothing going forward into this year. We’ve got to be a lot better in terms of the execution, and we should be because we should know what the problems are for the plays that we’re running — run plays, protections, pass concepts.

“So, I personally expect a huge step forward in terms of the growth, the knowledge base of our players, the experience they have under their belts,” Johnson continued. “That’s why the emphasis has been on the basics. Let’s get really good at the fundamentals, because that’s what helped us win games at the end of last year. The fact that we led the league in ball security — we didn’t turn the ball over in the second half of the season — that equated to wins for us. I think just the recognition of the little things all adding up and paying big dividends as an offense, that’s really the point.”

Now, don’t be confused, Johnson doesn’t intend on rolling into the 2023 season with the same playbook as last year. There will be new plays, tweaked designs and situational adjustments. The team has already been running some stuff during OTAs this month, just to get those things on tape. And they’ll ramp up that process of adding to the playbook during training camp, when there are more practice reps for the offense to utilize.

Simply put, creativity is part of Johnson’s DNA as a coach. But the priority, now and in the future, is building a stronger foundation.

“We will still push the envelope,” Johnson said. “We’ll still be innovative and creative on offense, don’t get me wrong, but I just came away (from the self-scout) saying, ‘Shoot, man, we left a lot of meat on the bone in a lot of ways.'”

Johnson is also focused on getting better, on a personal level. He could see his own improvements as a first-year play-caller throughout last year, specifically referencing his growth between Detroit’s two games against division-rival Green Bay. Now, he’s determined to reduce the times one of his decisions puts his offense in a difficult position.

“That’s really my goal as a play-caller, keeping us out of plays that don’t really have a chance from the get-go,” Johnson said.

And like all good managers, he’s learning to trust those around him and delegate more.

“If there’s one thing, I’d say for me a year ago, I micro-managed maybe a little too much, just for the sake of making sure we were all on the same page of what the vision was,” Johnson said. “Now that we’ve been together for a year — and we do have a couple new coaches — I have a lot more trust. They know the language; they know the vernacular. There’s been more individual meetings, as opposed to offensive meetings, because these guys know what the expectation is and they’re running with it. I have a huge comfort level with the coaching staff around me.”

And those new coaches — Scottie Montgomery, Steve Heiden and Jim Hostler — are another piece capable of pushing the offense to the next level. Each brings a wealth of experience, with new ideas, which Johnson welcomes as he broadens his thought process.

“It’s awesome to be in the room right now because we have so many opinions,” Johnson said. “And I love when they bring things up because it just hits me from a different light and I’m growing, I’m getting better because we have these new voices in the room.”


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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