Niyo: Lions' run game turns 'small things' into huge gains

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Lions running back Kerryon Johnson cuts trying to get past Dolphins defender Kiko Alonso in the second quarter.

Miami Gardens, Fla. — It’s the little things that lead to big plays. Everyone will tell you that. And it’s the little guys — comparatively speaking — who often get the credit in football.

But after another career-best rushing performance Sunday in a 32-21 win over the Miami Dolphins, Kerryon Johnson wanted to be up front about one thing. It’s the big guys who deserved the Lions’ share of the praise after Detroit’s dominant showing on the ground, a 248-yard pile-driving effort the likes of which we haven’t seen from this franchise in a generation.

“When you’re at eight yards a carry, that means your life is pretty easy,” laughed Johnson, who finished his day with 158 yards on 19 carries. “When you’re getting eight yards a carry, I’m gonna get all the credit, blah, blah, blah. But, I mean, that’s them.”

And by them, he meant all his teammates doing the dirty work to keep him clean on a sweltering south Florida afternoon, clearing a path right from the start of the Lions’ impressive road win at Hard Rock Stadium.

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It was an offensive showing that saw Detroit score on seven of eight possessions — Sam Martin punted just once — before taking a knee in the victory formation, leaving Dolphins coach Adam Gase sighing afterward, “Basically, they could do whatever they wanted on that side of the ball.”

Basically, yeah. And when was the last time you could say that about the Lions’ rushing attack?

Certainly not last year, which is why Lions general manager Bob Quinn made some of the moves he made in the offseason, using his first-round draft pick on an interior lineman — Frank Ragnow — and trading up in the second round for Johnson.

It’s also why new head coach Matt Patricia spent so much time preaching — and practicing — the techniques and toughness he and Quinn both felt this team was lacking in recent years. The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing in two out of the last three seasons, and they were no better than a 50-50 proposition on short-yardage situations a year ago, which likely cost them a playoff berth.

'A step forward'

“Coach Patricia came in and I think one of the first things he talked about was we gotta be a tough football team,” said veteran guard T.J. Lang, who returned to the lineup from a concussion he suffered in the loss at Dallas a few weeks ago.

And now?

“I think that’s something we feel like is a big part of our identity as a football team,” Lang added. “Obviously, we’ve got some new pieces, new coaches. Everybody’s buying in, everybody believes in the run game. It took a step forward today.”

A big one, obviously.

And quickly, as Johnson took the Lions’ first play from scrimmage 24 yards around left end, with tackle Taylor Decker setting the edge, fullback Nick Bellore occupying up a linebacker and receiver Marvin Jones blocking downfield.

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“And with the vision (Johnson) has, especially, you realize you get those small things done, he’s got a chance to turn it into a big thing every time he touches the ball,” Lang said. “He’s an explosive play waiting to happen every time he touches the ball.”

The rookie back detonated again on the first play of second quarter, breaking off a 71-yarder for the longest run of his career, college or pro. (Johnson’s best in college was a 60-yarder last season against Georgia Southern). This one was a power play behind a terrific double-team block on the right side with Rick Wagner and Kenny Wiggins walling off the tackle, tight end Levine Toilolo standing up the end and Ragnow, the left guard who had another strong showing, pulling through the hole to bury linebacker Kiko Alonso.

“It was really just a great overall effort up front,” Ragnow said.

The same could be said for the entire team, as the Lions effectively controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, sacking Brock Osweiler four times and mostly bottling up Miami’s run game with the exception of Kenyan Drake’s 54-yard touchdown midway through the third quarter.

'Itching to get better'

That probably explains why everyone was in such a good mood late Sunday afternoon, in spite of all the heat and humidity and IVs. There was Patricia chatting with owner Martha Firestone Ford outside the locker room, and Matthew Stafford cracking jokes at his postgame press conference, and the various Lions stepping into the way-back machine when reporters pressed them about the eye-popping numbers.

Sunday's 248-yard rushing output was the most for the Lions since Nov. 23, 1997, when they rolled up 249 in a win against the Jim Harbaugh-quarterbacked Indianapolis Colts in the midst of Barry Sanders’ 2,000-yard season.

When told that, Ragnow laughed and replied, “Wow, I was 1 year old.” Eighteen months old, actually. Johnson was a 4-month-old infant. Lang was all of 10, a fifth grader at now-closed Taft Elementary in Ferndale.

Stafford was a 9-year-old growing up in suburban Dallas. Now 30 and a father of three, he’s been waiting the better part of a decade for a run game like this to lean on as an NFL quarterback. So, yes, he was just fine that most of the questions were about something other than his mostly flawless day — 18-for-22 for 217 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was awesome,” said Stafford, who was rarely blitzed because of the effective running. “I haven’t been a part of too many like that. And we kind of did it every which way.”

That’s the point, really. There were efficient runs on first down, chain-moving runs on second down — the Lions picked up 12 of their 24 first downs on the ground — and explosive runs in every quarter — gains of 24, 71, 18 and 30 yards, respectively.

“I think the good thing, too, is standing in the locker room there was still guys that felt like we left some yards out on the field,” Lang said of his linemates. “That’s the type of group we’ve got — never satisfied. I think everybody realizes today was a good day for us. But there’s not gonna be a huge celebration. …

“It’s not, ‘Hey, let’s take a deep breath’ or ‘Hey, let’s relax and have fun because we had a good performance.’ No, it’s, ‘If we fix that play and that play, maybe we’re looking at 300 yards.’ Everybody’s just itching to get better.”

If they do, even if just a little, that'll make a big difference. The Lions are back to .500 now, with crucial division games looming next month. But they headed home from Miami finally feeling grounded, at long last. And that's no small thing.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo