Justin Rogers and John Niyo discuss the Lions' three-game losing streak and the team's chances of snapping it at home against Carolina. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Allen Park – When the Detroit Lions host the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, the focal point for each defense will be on the opposing backfield. That’s because the clearest path to victory, for both teams, will be limiting the damage done by running backs Christian McCaffrey and Kerryon Johnson.
Versatility from the running back position is nothing new, but the NFL is in a golden age of players being able to do equal damage between the tackles or in the passing game. And in his second season, McCaffrey is near the head of the class.
The former Stanford standout is playing a staggering 96.4 percent of Carolina's offensive snaps, a higher clip than any running back in the league. He ranks 11th in the league in rushing while leading the Panthers in both targets and receptions.
“He’s going to challenge us in every way,” Lions safety Glover Quin said. “You’ve got to account for him every play. He’s just one of those guys who is a very dangerous weapon and they’re going a good job of finding ways to get the ball is in his hands.”
As a pass-catcher, Quin explained McCaffrey’s bread and butter is taking in short passes and doing damage after the catch. Cornerback Darius Slay compared it to another teammate’s skill set.
“He’s a Theo Riddick, that’s what it is," Slay said. "Great at it and can run between the tackles. Great guy. Great speed. Great vision. He’s very talented, man, at a young age. For him to be young with a lot on his shoulders, he handles it pretty well, so it’s exciting to watch him on film. I like watching him. Smooth."
Riddick’s production has tailed off a bit in recent years, but at his peak in 2015, he set Detroit's franchise record at his position with 80 catches. McCaffrey had 80 as a rookie last year and, with 54 already, he’s on pace to smash that this season.
Johnson isn’t at the level yet. He’s still firmly a tier below McCaffrey, Toddy Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Alvin Kamara and fellow rookie Saquon Barkley. Those players are doing it a more consistent basis. But with continued improvement, particularly as a receiving option, Johnson has shown the talent to work his way into that conversation.
In college, Johnson wasn’t asked to do much coming out of the backfield. When the Lions drafted him in the second round this offseason, they expressed confidence in his ability to be a bigger part of the passing game and he’s rewarded that faith with 30 catches on 37 targets through his first nine games.
“The easiest way to get on the field is being able to do whatever the team needs,” Johnson said. “If you’re just a runner, what are you going to do on passing downs, passing plays. You can’t just come out every time. That was my goal coming into the league and I think I’m getting there and doing pretty well.”
A student of the game, Johnson enjoys studying the league's best backs, trying to incorporate what they do best into his own playing style. Perhaps surprisingly, for those who don’t watch McCaffrey play often, Johnson said the characteristic he admires the most is his Carolina counterpart’s game is the ability to get north and south.
“One thing he does, in my opinion, is he’s always going downhill with purpose,” Johnson said. “When you’re fast like that and shifty like that, you can have a tendency to go laterally. But with him, he makes his move he goes, he spins, he goes, he jukes, he goes, he catches the ball, he goes. I think that’s a really good thing about him.”
Their builds are nearly identical. Both McCaffrey and Johnson are listed at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. And Johnson’s running style also reflects putting a premium on wasting minimal motion. According to the NFL’s stat tracking, both players are near the top of the league in rushing efficiency (vertical yards run to horizontal yards), with Johnson holding the slight edge.
Yet the always-eager-to-improve Johnson expects more from himself. Detroit's leading rusher is mired in a mini-slump, with 110 yards on 34 carries over the past three games. He's committed to cleaning up wasted runs, ensuring his offense isn’t constantly behind the sticks.
“I’ve been taking too many negative runs and 0-yard runs,” Johnson said. “It makes it extremely hard on our offense, our quarterback and our play-caller. Those are hard situations, hard downs to call, hard plays to execute.”
Johnson will look to get back on track against a Carolina defense that ranks in the top 10 against the run, while the Detroit defense will look to build off last week’s stellar outing controlling the Chicago Bears' ground game.
Lions vs. Panthers
Kickoff: Sunday, 1 p.m., Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: Fox/760 AM
Records: Lions 3-6, Panthers 6-3
Line: Panthers by 4