Niyo: Lions changing coordinators, but don't expect change in course

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Kerryon Johnson

Allen Park – They could run, sure. Just not well enough to hide all their other deficiencies.

But that’s something the Lions’ leadership pointed to as progress at the end of a disappointing 6-10 season, even as they jettisoned another coach-turned-scapegoat in Jim Bob Cooter on Tuesday. That's something they cited as tangible evidence that their plan to fortify the franchise – “to build something at a championship level,” as head coach Matt Patricia reiterated Monday – is a fundamentally sound one, even if that sort of talk in Detroit still has people cracking jokes. 

Here’s the funny part, though: They might be right. Finally, after all those years of watching the Lions’ half-hearted attempts to fix the running game, we saw some signs in 2018 that they’re actually on the right track there.

Where that leads them is impossible to say, particularly with significant changes looming this offseason, the first of which came late Tuesday as the Lions announced -- to no one's surprise -- that Cooter's contract wouldn't be renewed.

Asked to assess his first year on the job a day earlier, Patricia immediately went back to the basics, the one he emphasized the last 10 months, perhaps at his own coordinator's expense.

More: Wojo: Lions won't win until they solve the Stafford issue

He lauded the run defense that finally came together the second half of the year, after the Lions traded for defensive tackle Damon Harrison and started to truly grasp a new scheme. And then on the flip side, he talked about how the new-look Lions tried to hit the ground running in one area, at least. 

“One part of the offense that I thought was really improved was the run game, which was obviously a big part of the questioning that I got when I first got here,” Patricia said. “And that’s half of the game. So, I’ll take that as a positive and we’ll build from there.”

Now, you can question how much improvement there really was in the end, given the regression we saw from Matthew Stafford in the passing game. And the too-conservative gameplans that Patricia no doubt had a heavy hand in drawing up.

But it is something to build on. The Lions averaged 4.1 yards per carry as a team this season, which left them tied with Chicago for fifth-worst in the NFL But that was up from an anemic 3.4 yards per carry in 2017 and it’s the best for a Detroit team since 2011.

Again, that's not exactly the high bar Patricia was referencing elsewhere in his postmortem press conference Monday. But rewind the tape back to September and October and you’ll find reason for optimism, as Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ rookie second-round pick, proved to be a dynamic threat out of the backfield.

He became the first Detroit running back to post a 100-yard rushing game in the Week 3 win over New England – ending the franchise’s 70-game drought – and then bettered that a month later with a 158-yard day as the Lions ran wild in Miami, posting their best team rushing total since Barry Sanders’ days back in 1997. The Lions went 4-2 in the games he posted double-digit carries, and 3-0 when he had 15 or more rushes.

They all need to finish

A knee injury cut short Johnson’s season in mid-November, but he was on pace for a 1,000-yard rookie campaign and, at 5.4 yards per carry, he ranked No. 2 in the league among backs with 100-plus attempts. Advanced metrics painted a similar picture, as Johnson ranked 14th among running backs in Football Outsiders’ total value stats – just ahead of the Giants’ rookie star, Saquon Barkley – and fifth in value per play, one spot above Denver’s Pro Bowl rookie, Phillip Lindsay.

Lindsay’s season ended in Week 16 with a wrist injury that’ll require offseason surgery. Johnson only played in 10 games, but said Monday he could've been ready to play in late December if the Lions were still in the playoff hunt. Regardless, his 2019 resolution was pretty straightforward: Play all 16 games.

“I like to win and I like to be accountable,” he said, “and one way you do that is by finishing."

LeGarrette Blount

And that’s the task now for Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn, who made the run game a priority last winter and now must finish what they started.

A year ago, the Lions converted on only 50 percent (7-for-14) of their third- or fourth-and-1 rushing attempts, a stat Quinn underlined in his post-draft assessment of his team’s toughness. (“All those critical situations -- like, it’s goal-line, and we can’t run the ball half a yard -- that bothered me,” the GM groused back in April.)

So in addition to the coaching changes -- among them, Patricia brought in Jeff Davidson to recalibrate the offensive line -- Quinn went out and signed a big back in free agency (LeGarrette Blount), used his first-round pick on an interior lineman (Frank Ragnow) and even drafted a fullback (Nick Bawden), only to lose the latter to a torn ACL in June minicamp.

Another back needed

In the end, the numbers did show some improvement there, as the Lions converted better than 70 percent (12-for-17) of those short-yardage situations.

But the Blount signing itself proved to be something else, as he became only the seventh NFL back in the last decade to average fewer than 3 yards per carry while getting more than 100 attempts over a full season. And only the fourth to do it while playing all 16 games, joining the likes of Trent Richardson and Bernard Pierce.

More: Lions sign former MSU star QB Connor Cook to future deal

It’s impossible to say what the Lions’ final rushing statistics would’ve looked like had Johnson and veteran guard T.J. Lang not been sidelined by injury. Or if the offense hadn’t been handcuffed by too many handoffs to Blount into a stacked eight-man box.

Zach Zenner proved late in the season he’s a reliable No. 3 option, if not a No. 2. But either way, the Lions need to find another running back to complement Johnson this winter, and maybe even a replacement for Theo Riddick, whose 2018 production didn’t match the $4.4 million cap hit he’ll carry in 2019. They also have to figure out if Lang -- an integral part of that run game -- will be back, perhaps on a restructured contract.

Before all that, of course, Patricia needs to make a decision on his next offensive coordinator. Cooter’s three-and-a-half-year run in Detroit officially ended Tuesday, and fans will no doubt cheer that move. (They'll also see him find success elsewhere down the line, I'm guessing. At 34, Cooter was the youngest offensive coordinator in the league.)

So who’ll take over the play-calling duties? Ideally, it won't simply be a promotion from within, though I'm not sure I'd bet on that based on Patricia's staffing decisions thus far.

But whoever it is will have to understand where the head coach is coming from philosophically -- "You know what’s interesting? Watch through the playoffs, most of the teams that win in the playoffs are teams that run the ball," Patricia said -- and where the Lions hope they're headed.

“There’s evidence of taking a step forward this year," Lang said. "And I think as long as everybody keeps the right mindset, which they will do, I envision another step forward next year."

Getting better

The Lions’ leaders in rushing yards in each of the last five seasons:

2018: Kerryon Johnson, 641 yards, 5.4 average, 3 TD

2017: Ameer Abdullah, 552 yards, 3.3 average, 4 TD

2016: Theo Riddick, 357 yards, 3.9 average, 1 TD

2015: Ameer Abdullah, 597 yards, 4.2 average, 2 TD

2014: Joique Bell, 860 yards, 3.9 average, 7 TD