Matthew Stafford’s talent has never been the problem. He has one of the strongest arms in the NFL. He’s an accurate downfield passer. He’s not just a gunslinger who likes to throw deep every play because chicks dig the long ball. He’s good at the line of scrimmage and reading the defense. More importantly, he has improved over the last few years in managing the game and taking what the defense gives him. Still, it’s difficult to take on a game-manager mentality when your offense is one-dimensional. Stafford has had no help from his running game throughout most of his career.
Detroit’s rushing attack has been an absolute embarrassment for years. The Lions have gained fewer yards on the ground each year since 2014. They were dead last in the league in rushing in 2015 and 2017, and third-worst in 2016. Stafford has had less support in this area than any other quarterback in the NFL.
2018 has been much different, though. The Lions are averaging 122.3 rushing yards per game (12th in the NFL). That’s nearly 50 more yards per game than last year. The Lions are getting both sustaining runs as well as big plays on the ground. Arguably the most significant reason is rookie running back Kerryon Johnson.
Johnson has shown the ability to run hard between the tackles and also bounce it to the outside. He has deceptive quickness and speed. But what stands out most is his patience. Johnson sets up his blockers and does a good job of getting the defense flowing in one direction before making his cut (also known as “pressing the hole”).
The below plays illustrate some of Johnson’s best traits. On the first play, pay attention to Dolphins linebacker #55. Watch how he bounces outside in response to Johnson. It’s subtle, but this helps set up his lead block.
On this next play, watch Johnson make a quick move to his right after receiving the hand off (again, it’s subtle). This freezes the safety (#38) just enough to enable Johnson to hit the hole in the next gap to the left.
That’s also a great job of getting skinny through the running lane.
This next play is just a great example of Johnson’s athleticism and ability to make defenders miss.
Johnson has been very good for Detroit in the early going.
The blocking has also been much improved and more consistent than a year ago. You can see this on the below 71-yard power run from last week’s game against the Dolphins.
Look at the down blocks by right guard Kenny Wiggins (#79) and right tackle Ricky Wagner (#71). They do a great job of walling off the defense. Pulling guard Frank Ragnow (#77) does a great job of digging the linebacker out of the hole, creating a huge running lane for Johnson.
On the below play, you can see the Lions put it all together on the ground. They get a good double-team on the front side from left guard Frank Ragnow (#77) and center Graham Glasgow (#60). Right guard T.J. Lang (#76) does a great job of cutting off the back side. Kerryon Johnson again presses the hole to ensure the defense flows to the left before cutting upfield.
Another element to this play is the formation. Notice the fullback and tight end aligned in the backfield.
Pre-snap, the balanced look gives the Lions the ability to have the numbers advantage if they run in either direction.
This formation also helps to muddy the defense’s responsibilities by adding gaps during the play. In the below illustrations, you can see the gaps the defense needs to account for at the snap, and then the gaps they need to account for once the play has started.
The gaps went from 6 to 8. While the Dolphins had 8 defenders to account for those gaps in theory, it was difficult to account for them in practice. As you can see below, the backside safety made an initial movement towards the line of scrimmage in his gap. Between this and the good cutoff block by Lang, the Dolphins had 2 defenders in the same gap.
The balanced formation and addition of gaps worked together to cause a split-second delay in the backside getting to the open running lane. Johnson ran through the resulting arm tackle and gained 8 yards.
The Lions running game will likely continue to evolve. It’s possible their offensive line is just now finally coming together. Detroit has been trying to build a steady force up front over the last few years. In 2016, they drafted left tackle Taylor Decker in the first round and center Graham Glasgow in the 3rd. They added Pro Bowl right guard T.J. Lang in free agency in 2017. This year, they added left guard Frank Ragnow in the first round of the draft.
The addition of Kerryon Johnson in the 2nd round of this year’s draft seems to have helped bring this running game together. What if the Lions have finally provided Matthew Stafford with that sustaining element on offense?