Lions OC Ben Johnson shares thoughts on self-scout of 2021 season
Indianapolis — Coaching the Senior Bowl slightly altered the Detroit Lions' postseason schedule. It wasn't until after that late January event the coaching staff could fully throw themselves into a thorough evaluation of the previous season.
Entering the 2021 campaign, Ben Johnson had a far smaller scope of responsibility as the team's tight end coach. But after a midseason elevation to pass-game coordinator, followed by an offseason promotion to offensive coordinator, he enters this offseason with a wider focus on the improving the entire unit.
And after studying every snap, he came away with some key observations, both positive and negative, as the team looks to build on its second-half improvements in 2022.
First and foremost, Johnson exited the study with an even higher opinion of his offensive line. That's unit the franchise has invested heavily in the past few years, culminating with the selection of offensive tackle Penei Sewell with the No. 7 pick a year ago.
"We have the ability to be dominant up front — not just good, but dominant up front," Johnson said. "I think those guys, over the course of the last year, showed at one point in time. All five of the starters, and even the guys that played that were more backup types to start the year, they showed the ability to not just be a good unit, but one of the best in the NFL.
"That to me stood out almost immediately, " Johnson continued. "Of course, we started (our review) with the run game, so you felt that early on. You felt a surge up front on a regular basis, and that's something that we're going to look to build upon, and I think we can still continue to improve there as well."
When the staff's study shifted to the pass game, Johnson liked the efficiency. That was certainly one of the biggest areas of improvements down the stretch, when rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught fire and quarterback Jared Goff settled into a groove, posting a 107.1 passer rating across his final five starts. That subsequently overlapped with the team's only three wins.
That said, Johnson echoed a sentiment shared by coach Dan Campbell a number of times throughout the year; a lack of explosiveness. The Lions finished the year netting 6.6 yards per pass attempt, which tied for 24th in the league.
"We weren't nearly as explosive, or had the yards per attempt, that we would like to get to truly unlock what we want to be able to do on offense," Johnson said.
But the bigger areas of concern for Johnson were two of the most critical for any offense's success: Third down and the red zone.
"We were terrible, just terrible, frankly," Johnson said.
Detroit tied for last in the NFL, converting just 34.7% of their third downs. For context, the Kansas City Chiefs paced the league, converting 52.5% of their attempts. And in the red zone, only the New York Giants were worse than the Lions at converting trips inside the 20-yard line into touchdowns.
Detroit scored six points on 46.7% of their red zone trips, well behind the offense's 66% percent conversion rate from the previous season. Johnson said the key to getting better inside the 20 is a continuation of the team's run game success outside the red zone.
"When you look at our overall run efficiency, we were over 50%," Johnson said. "When we got in the red zone, that dropped down under 40%. I'm not even talking about in the tight red (zone). In the tight red, you know the safeties are going to get up there tighter, and you have to be creative in terms of how you account for them. I'm talking about really the 20 to the 12, we were closer to 24% efficient, which is staggering how much that dropped."
Johnson also acknowledged an offseason addition of an outside receiver capable of consistently winning his one-on-one matchups would provide a big boost in those critical situations.
"That was another thing that we brought up is how many times did we really throw it outside the numbers when we got down there tight?," Johnson said. "It was probably below league average. That's something we need to look at and need to continue to explore."
Regardless of what pieces the Lions add in free agency and the draft, Johnson is eager to work with his experienced offensive staff to get the ship righted.
"The challenge for us is really going to be to hone in on what we want the 2022 Detroit Lions to look like," Johnson said. "There's not going to be any shortage of ideas, but at the same time, everyone needs to take ownership in this because this is really all of our babies. This is all of our livelihoods, so it's important that we're all invested in this thing."