Justin Rogers and John Niyo discuss the Detroit Lions' upcoming matchup with the Green Bay Packers. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park — Through four games, Kerryon Johnson has clearly been the Detroit Lions’ best running back. Therefore, it’s no surprise one of the most popular topics leading up to the team’s Week 5 matchup with Green Bay has been the rookie’s workload.
But maybe Johnson’s closely monitored playing time shouldn’t be surprising. After all, the clues were there, dating back to before he was drafted, when the Lions hosted a season ticket holder summit at Ford Field in early April.
There, coach Matt Patricia affirmed a question that his team would rely heavily on a matchup-based rotation, similar to his former employer, the New England Patriots.
And when you go back and look at 10 years of data, the Patriots never put too much work on the shoulders of one back. During that stretch, not one averaged more than 20 carries plus receiving targets. In fact, the team’s leader averaged fewer than 15 during seven of those 10 seasons.
So despite averaging 5.7 yards per carry, despite being the only running back with an explosive run — two longer than 20 yards — and despite being the only one who has scored who has scored a rushing touchdown, Johnson's playing time has been tightly regulated by design.
In part, it’s been dictated by situation, but he’s second in snaps, behind Theo Riddick, and Johnson has just three more carries than veteran LeGarrette Blount, who is averaging less than half as many yards on those attempts.
One week after Johnson snapped the Lions’ 70-game drought without a 100-yard rusher, he got his first start against the Dallas Cowboys. And he appeared primed for another huge day, taking a handoff on the first offensive snap for a season-high 32 yards. But after a burst of touches to start the day, Johnson disappeared from the game plan, finishing with just nine carries on the day.
Patricia and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter offered little insight into why Johnson’s playing time was limited to 20 snaps.
“I’m still not going to go down the path of an ideal workload or number of touches inside the ball process,” Cooter said. “We’re going to keep that in-house. I think that’s strategic information we’d like to hang on to.”
But Patricia did acknowledge that he’s done studies on running back usage over the course of a full season to determine how best maximize the production at the position.
And that makes sense for Johnson, for two reasons.
First, he is on the smaller side, with a non-traditional body type for the position. As one scout told longtime Packers reporter Bob McGinn prior to the draft, Johnson has an “odd kind of build” and is a “long, leggy runner.”
On the chart of the Patriots' leading backs, the guy closest to Johnson's size on that list, Shane Vareen, averaged 10.8 carries plus targets in 2014. Johnson is currently at 12.8 through four games entering Sunday's game against the Packers at Ford Field.
The second reason it makes sense is because Johnson battled durability issues in high school and at Auburn, in part because of heavy workloads. He averaged 25 touches at Auburn last year and has made multiple comments critical of his over-use since joining the Lions.
"Thirty carries a game, that's obviously not going to happen," Johnson said earlier this offseason. "It shouldn't happen in college and it's definitely not going to happen in the NFL."
So it makes no sense to expect him to have a similar workload to what he had in college.
“I mean, yeah, this is a whole different ball game than college,” Johnson said. “You’re doing so much more, against better players, against more physical players. As a running back, game in, game out, you might be able to do it one game, you might be able to do it two or three, but it catches up to you.”
Johnson said it’s not about him getting more touches. He put it on himself to do more with the touches he is getting.
“That means you just have to do more touches that you get,” Johnson said. “In this league, as good of guys as we have, as good of game plans as defenses have, you never know how many times you’re going to get it. You can get it 16, 20, 10, 5, you’ve just got to make all those rushes count.”
What's the ceiling for Johnson's playing time?
While it might spike occasionally, based on matchup, his current workload might not far from what we can expect to see. New England's average lead back the past decade saw the ball twice more per game than Johnson is seeing it now.
"As a competitor, obviously it’s tough," Johnson said. "But that’s the game plan. I don’t make those calls.
"I go in when they tell me to go in and when they do, I have to be ready. It’s important to stay loose, it’s important to stay mentally engaged, so when you do get that opportunity, you don’t mess it up and go another long stretch or two without an opportunity."