Four Downs: Kerryon Johnson carries the load; Lions make case as NFC North contender
Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 34-30 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
There was never any reason to believe the Lions would use Kerryon Johnson as a workhorse in the backfield, but here we are. Two weeks after the release of C.J. Anderson, Johnson is shouldering the load more than could have been expected, especially when you consider the factors at play.
First, Lions coach Matt Patricia was groomed in a system that heavily managed running back workloads. In New England, the Patriots rarely had a back average more than 15 carries plus passing game targets during a season. And Patricia has acknowledged he's studied how usage rate impacts a back's long-term effectiveness.
Second, there are built-in durability concerns with Johnson. He suffered multiple injuries in high school and college, plus wasn't able to finish his first professional season, suffering a knee injury that limited him to 10 games.
But since Anderson was let go, Johnson has played 101 snaps in two games, 73.2 percent of Detroit's offensive workload. He's carried the ball 46 times during that stretch, setting a career-high in back-to-back games. His 26 carries against Kansas City were double his career average to that point.
We have to acknowledge that the Lions, under Patricia, alter the approach from week to week, so things could change quickly, but it's becoming clear there's faith in Johnson's ability to handle more than maybe previously anticipated.
Beyond him on the depth chart, Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic are part of a still-evolving support system. Against the Chiefs, it was McKissic who saw more of the work, more than doubling the rookie's workload, 27 snaps to 11.
Since they don't show up in the standings, no one in the Lions locker room wants to talk about moral victories, but at the very least, Sunday's performance merits an external reevaluation of our expectations for this team.
It's safe to say, when the schedule came out, there was a collective sense of dread about the brutal opening stretch to the season. That included three straight games against teams with the second-, fifth- and seventh- best odds to win the Super Bowl. Yet, the Lions went toe-to-toe with each of them, emerging victorious against the Chargers and Eagles before absorbing the hard-fought defeat to the Chiefs.
Detroit's effort against Kansas City was the team's best on the young season. The offense looked in sync, the defense disruptive and the special teams polished. Clean up some of the ball security issues and that type of performance is good enough to beat any team in the NFL.
So while it's only been four games, it's reasonable to demand more from these Lions. The franchise has not won a division title since realignment in 2002, and by extension, have yet to host a home playoff game at Ford Field, which opened the same year. It's time that narrative changes.
The NFC North is wide open this year. The Packers just lost to an Eagles team the Lions beat, at home, no less. The Bears are 3-1, but are an incomplete team with a lackluster offense. Finally, the Vikings are struggling to find consistency and already 0-2 in the division.
One of the Lions' biggest problems last season was the defense's inability to produce takeaways. The team finished near the bottom of the league in both interceptions and fumbles. Only the Raiders generated fewer turnovers overall.
Because of their game-altering nature, every coaching staff places importance on turnovers, but it was a clear point of emphasis for the Lions throughout this offseason. And while the interceptions have been slow to come, with two through four games, the Lions are wreaking havoc when it comes to forcing fumbles.
The Lions lead the NFL with six fumble recoveries, jumping on three-quarters of the balls opponents have put on the ground. And it's no accident. Detroit's defenders are actively trying to strip or punch it out whenever there's an opening.
Cornerback Justin Coleman was responsible for the fourth and final forced fumble against the Chiefs and the technique was textbook. After receiver Sammy Watkins went to the ground to make a catch, it appeared as if Coleman allowed Watkins to get back to his feet. While the receiver was off-balance, Coleman balled his fist and delivered a straight shot to the ball, popping it free.
For years, when Lovie Smith was coaching the Bears, no team was better at forcing fumbles. That defense would make a player pay if their ball security fundamentals weren't perfect. With these Lions, it has a similar feel, and it's helping correct last year's deficiency.
Let's go back a week. It's the Eagles' final offensive snap, 4th-and-15, and they need a first down to stay alive. You scan Detroit's defensive alignment and you're surprised see No. 25, rookie Will Harris. It's only his 53rd defensive snap of the season, but the Lions are already showing an unexpected level of comfort in the young safety in this critical situation.
On that play, Harris, a deep safety, drove down to support Coleman with Nelson Agholor, after the receiver got a step on the coverage. The help was enough to take away the popular target from quarterback Carson Wentz. It also left the deep part of the field unprotected. Harris made the right decision, leading to a deep shot that fell incomplete, leaving victory in Detroit's hands.
The early-season experience for Harris proved crucial against the Chiefs. When Quandre Diggs suffered a hamstring injury late in the first quarter, it was the rookie who was called upon to play a much larger role.
You won't find an overall evaluation Harris here, something we might consider for this week's film review, but outside of a missed tackle in the open field on LeSean McCoy's 39-yard run, there weren't any glaring mistakes in his 52 snaps of work.
The Lions could use injured cornerback Darius Slay and Diggs back in a hurry, but the impressive depth the team has accumulated in the secondary showed up on Sunday, limiting Patrick Mahomes to an 81.0 passer rating, his third-worst in 21 regular season starts.