Bob Wojnowski, Justin Rogers and John Niyo break down the Detroit Lions' 31-23 victory over the Green Bay Packers. The Detroit News
Detroit — No, you’re not going to figure out the Lions, not now, probably not ever. No, you’re not supposed to understand how they beat two of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, and lost to three lesser teams. Do not waste your time trying.
But we did discover something about the Lions in their funky, freaky 31-23 victory over Green Bay. On a day when the Packers were giving away everything, from fumbles to field goals, the Lions did something they generally haven’t done. They took it with force and aggressiveness.
The revelation of the season so far is that the Lions actually have a legitimate running game with rising rookie star Kerryon Johnson and veteran LeGarrette Blount. All they have to do is figure out how to use it even more often.
You can chalk up this victory to the NFL’s unpredictability and the Lions’ fickle fate, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong. Aaron Rodgers was missing key weapons and Packers kicker Mason Crosby was inexplicably missing virtually everything, misfiring on four field-goal attempts and one extra point.
But as they head to their bye with a 2-3 record, the Lions have shown they’re serious about transforming their reputation. Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn publicly addressed it in the offseason, and have done something about it. Couldn’t beat tough teams because they couldn’t get the tough yards? They did Sunday, and seem committed to keep trying.
On the first drive of the game, Johnson ripped off a 16-yard run to establish field position. Then after the Packers muffed a punt at the 1, Blount plowed into the end zone for a 7-0 lead. On the next drive, Blount capped it with another 1-yard plunge, and the Lions were on their way to a 24-0 halftime lead.
In between, Matthew Stafford still did his thing and the Lions’ terrific trio of receivers — Kenny Golladay, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones — still did their thing. Golladay has become a star, and showed his size, strength and speed on a 60-yard reception.
But the Lions long have played that fling-it-around game and not gotten anywhere. Johnson, the second-round pick from Auburn, is different than any back they’ve had for a while. So is Blount, who barreled for first downs on two other third-and-1 plays, as the Lions stacked short-yardage situations with fullbacks and extra blockers.
The game was halfway over before Rodgers finally got unlimbered, and once he started firing, it got a little dangerous. The lead was down to 24-14 as the fourth quarter began, and what did the Lions do? Blount rumbled for six yards on third-and-1 from Green Bay’s 38. Two plays later, Johnson scooted 24 yards to the 8, setting up the clinching touchdown by Golladay.
At the end of Johnson’s run, he landed awkwardly as he was knocked out of bounds. He got up limping, while the fans surely were gasping for air. But afterward, Johnson was as bright and optimistic as ever, and said his ankle would be fine after the bye.
“I think I scared myself way more than actual damage was done,” Johnson said. “If I can walk, I can run. That’s just the mindset I’ve always tried to play with. If I needed to (go back in the game), I think I could have.”
If rookies are supposed to walk before they run, well, it’s probably time for the Lions to let Johnson loose. He finished with 70 yards on only 12 carries, although the Lions didn’t have the ball much. Rodgers ended up throwing for 442 yards, many of them inconsequential, as the Lions sacked him four times and forced him into two fumbles.
Amid all the Packers’ miscues, it was a hard-knocking effort by the Lions. For the season, Johnson has 286 yards and a 5.7 per-carry average that ranks among the best in the league. And in case you forgot, he busted the Lions’ infamous 70-game drought without a 100-yard rusher when he collected 101 against New England.
Hmm. Johnson was instrumental in that 26-10 thumping of the Patriots and Tom Brady two weeks ago, and again against the Packers. And in the losses to the Jets, 49ers and Cowboys, he averaged only seven carries and 38 yards.
So yeah, there is something about hanging with the big boys by banging against the big boys. It also helped that the Patriots and Packers were without key pieces, although it’s not like the Lions have enjoyed perfect health, missing T.J. Lang and Ziggy Ansah again.
Clamoring for more
This was their NFC North opener and their third straight victory over the Packers, although the first with Rodgers in the lineup.
“In our division, we know it’s going to be a dogfight in the trenches, and to be able to establish a level of physicality is huge,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “When they know we’re running the ball, and we know we’re running the ball, and still get it, that’s huge. And to have a dynamic playmaker like (Johnson) that can make guys miss on the second level, I think him and LeGarrette are a good combo.”
Blount only averages 2.5 yards per carry, which is often all he’s asked to get. And no one is getting overly giddy about the Lions’ running offense. At 98 yards per game, it ranks 20th in the NFL, still 12 spots higher than last year’s dead last.
Johnson is the key to the balance, and in some ways, the key to the rest of the season. We’ve seen around the league how dynamic runners can complement dynamic passers, and how big games are won.
While fans clamor for more from Johnson, he says he’s willing to carry on at whatever pace needed. But he acknowledges he’s also ready for more.
“Each game you get a little more settled in,” Johnson said. “But each game is a different challenge, each defense is different. You start getting used to the pressure, getting used to the stakes in this league. I’ve enjoyed it a lot. We’ve had ups, we’ve had downs, we’ve had in the middle. But one thing I can tell you, playing here is something different. The crowd when you make a play is just unbelievable.”
Johnson already is a fan favorite for his smooth running style and his smiling humility. If Blount is the bruiser, Johnson is the game-buster, although he’s not reluctant to ram straight ahead.
“There’s a learning curve, but I’ve been out there playing physical,” Johnson said. “In college, you can get as many carries basically as you want. In this league, you don’t know how many times you’re gonna get the ball. I just try to make the most of my opportunities.”
The Lions made the most of theirs against the Packers, and will get more opportunities to prove whether they’ve truly changed. It’s not easy to explain, nor easy to do. Getting the tough yards is supposed to be tough, and the Lions just might be catching on.