Flexibility work fueling Kerryon Johnson's run as Lions' backfield workhorse

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Up until a month ago, there was nothing to suggest the Detroit Lions would ever use running back Kerryon Johnson as a workhorse.

First, there was Johnson's own durability to worry about. Throughout high school and college, he dealt with a number of injuries, then he finished his rookie season with the Lions on injured reserve, hurting his knee in Week 10. 

Second, through both words and actions, Lions coach Matt Patricia seemed to prefer a balanced backfield timeshare, traditionally deployed by his longtime former employer New England. It's a stance he continues to take, repeating it Friday. 

Lions' Kerryon Johnson goes over the top for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Eagles.

"I would say, my preference is to try to divide up as many of those carries as we can when we feel like we can do that, from that situation," Patricia said.

Yet here we are, after a month and three games where Johnson has played more than 70 percent of the team's offensive snaps and received 79.7 percent of the carries. 

"Well, things change," Johnson said with a smile.

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After last year's season-ending injury, Johnson vowed to make his offseason focus preparing his body for the rigors of a full NFL season, something he wasn't able to do just prior to his rookie year, when attention is diverted to maximizing your pre-draft testing numbers, and by extension, your appeal to future employers. 

You might think attention to improving durability would center around getting stronger, particularly through the lower body for a running back. That obviously can't be ignored, but Johnson said the key for him was something he picked up from the man he essentially replaced as Detroit's starting running back, Ameer Abdullah. 

"It was a lot of flexibility work, more than strength," Johnson said. "By the time you get to the NFL, or shortly after, you've nearly peaked with your strength. Maintaining your flexibility, maintaining your ability to move functionally, maintaining your mobility, that's what really sets you apart. 

"I learned all that kind of stuff from guys like Ameer," Johnson said. "If you've ever seen Ameer do you yoga, it's crazy. Even Theo (Riddick), guys like that. You get to the league, you realize a lot of people at my position aren't super strong. You think everybody in the NFL is bench presses 350, squats like 600, but no, it's the guys that can move while having good strength. Those are the guys that make it."

At this point in the season, most NFL players are dealing with some nagging injury or soreness, but Johnson isn't showing any signs of the wear and tear you might expect after carrying the ball 59 games the past three games. 

"I feel fine," he said. "You do something for four or five months and it's been awesome to watch it pay off. ...I think back to the way my body was feeling last year, there's no way I could be doing this."

With his body holding up, now it's about unlocking the production. A year ago, Johnson was one of the most efficient backs in the NFL, averaging 5.4 yards per carry. This year, despite a 125-yard performance against Kansas City a couple weeks ago, that average has plummeted to 3.3 yards. 

His assessment of the ground game's issues echo those of Patricia and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, that the team is often one assignment away from properly executing many of their runs. Johnson is quick to point the finger at himself for some of those blown opportunities. 

"I've got mine in there," he said. "The thing about me, I've never been afraid to admit that. I tell them that, I tell you guys that, I tell my teammates that, if I mess up. Especially Arizona, there were three runs I messed up. Last game, there're two I messed up. I can't make the perfect read every time, but I try my best. As long as I'm up front about that, your teammates can trust you."

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The other recent focus for Johnson is ball security. He lost a critical fumble while irresponsibly trying to extend the ball across the goal line against Kansas City, then had a drive-killing drop late against Green Bay, when he bounced the ball off his own knee trying to switch hands to set up a stiff arm. 

"That's just something I focus on and I work on," Johnson said. "You carry the ball high and tight the whole practice, which is worked on doing today, so shout  out to the running back coach (Kyle Caskey) for making that an emphasis this week to eliminate that stuff from happening."

Johnson could have a tough time getting on track this week. The Minnesota Vikings defense ranks in the top-10 both in yards per carry and rushing yards per game allowed. 

"You always want to play against good defenses," Johnson said. "If we can do it against them, we can do it against anybody. That's the type of mentality you go into games like this. You know it's going to be hard, but you never back down from the challenge.


Twitter: @Justin_Rogers