Niyo: Step by step, Ty Johnson heading toward more run with Lions

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Rookie running back Ty Johnson rushed for 30 yards on five carries in Detroit's home opener last weekend.

Allen Park — Ty Johnson doesn’t scare easily.

But the Lions rookie running back will admit to being a little spooked the first time he took a regular-season handoff at Ford Field.

Even before that, Johnson will tell you he felt some jitters early in Sunday's home opener against the Los Angeles Chargers.

“That nervousness sets in a little bit, just because I’m a rookie,” he said. “But then it goes away right when I get in the huddle.”

Only it doesn’t go away entirely. And that’s a good thing, he figures.

“It keeps me on my toes, I’ll tell you that much,” Johnson said. “It makes me stay alert.”

So when the huddle broke for the Lions’ fourth offensive series in the 13-10 victory over the Chargers  on first-and-10 from Detroit’s 14-yard line  the rookie was on his toes, all right. He knew he was about to get the ball.

Johnson took the handoff from Matthew Stafford, hit the hole created by Joe Dahl and Tyrell Crosby on the left side of the line, and cut upfield behind a terrific lead block from fullback Nick Bawden on the Chargers’ Thomas Davis. Then, after he’d darted past another defender tied up by fellow rookie T.J. Hockenson, it was time for the real surprise, as safety Rayshawn Jenkins came charging at him, only to end up flattened on the turf by Johnson’s stiff-arm move.

“I didn’t even think about it for a second  it was just a quick reaction,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even see him. He just came in my vision and it was like, ‘Oh!’ He kind of scared me a little bit. So I shot out my hand and it just landed perfectly.”

Letting go

And by the time Johnson finally was forced out-of-bounds after a 17-yard gain  pile-driving cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. on the sideline as he went  the 5-foot-10, 210-pound rookie had made a pretty strong statement.

"It’s definitely a boost of confidence,” Johnson said. “I felt like after that run, they were like, ‘Let him go.’”

The coaches did just that, feeding a slightly weary rookie  Johnson was on the punt team immediately prior to that series and had to endure a re-kick after penalty  with five carries on the first six plays of the drive, producing 30 yards and three first downs on the ground.

“It was good for him to get in there,” Stafford said. “I thought he ran the ball well. He’s an explosive kid  strong, fast, physical. A young guy trying to do right. Still got a lot to learn, as well all do, but I was happy for him.”

And ultimately the Lions did more than just let him go Sunday. They also let go of C.J. Anderson, the veteran who’d started the season as the clear-cut No. 2 back on the depth chart.

Anderson’s release Tuesday came after the Lions claimed another running back, Paul Perkins, off waivers from the New York Giants. And just what role Perkins will fill in Detroit  or how quickly  remains to be seen.

But that move also came on the heels of Ty Johnson’s impressive showing against the Chargers. One that may have hastened the decision on Anderson, who was signed this offseason to be the Lions’ short-yardage back and reliable complement to second-year starter Kerryon Johnson -- a player the Lions are trying to keep healthy with a reasonable workload. (He has played 56 percent of the Lions' offensive snaps thus far.)

In all, Ty Johnson played 20 snaps in Sunday’s win, including 13 of the Lions’ 61 offensive plays. That’s one more than Anderson got against the Chargers, and several more than the handful third-down specialist J.D. McKissic got. And it marked a clear shift from the opener at Arizona, where Anderson played three times as many offensive snaps (24) as Johnson did (8) in that overtime tie with the Cardinals.

“Yeah, you know, we obviously try to find our best players and try to get our best players on the field and use their skill sets,” offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said Tuesday, just prior to the transaction being announced. “And Ty is no different. … So, just trying to get our best guys on the field any way that we can  different packages or different personnel groups  and see if we can bring their skill sets to light.”

The next step 

Johnson’s skills may have been a bit overlooked coming out of college, in part because of all the turmoil Maryland’s program went through during his career there. But also because of a calf injury that cut short his senior season. Johnson, who averaged 7.7 yards per carry for the Terrapins, didn’t get invited to the Senior Bowl or the NFL scouting combine. But the all-purpose back did impress at his pro day, running a blazing 40-yard dash that one scout reportedly clocked at 4.26 seconds.

That speed was evident through training camp and into the preseason in Detroit, too. But coaches still could see something was missing, as head coach Matt Patricia noted after a preseason game at Houston in mid-August.

“He just has to learn the next step after that,” Patricia said, when asked about some of Johnson’s carries against the Texans. “It was almost like he got through the line of scrimmage too fast and then was like, ‘What do we do?’”

What he did first was make the 53-man roster a few weeks ago, no small feat for the 16th running back taken in the draft, or the 186th overall pick.

What he’s doing now, it appears, is earning a longer look on Sundays, stepping in as the kick returner against the Chargers amid Jamal Agnew’s continuing struggles and perhaps getting even more run in the backfield going forward.

Not that he’s counting on it, mind you. Barely a month into his NFL career, Johnson has learned that it's best to be ready for anything.

“It’s about going in there and playing fast," he said, "and what you’re given, take.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo