ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Kerryon Johnson smiled while he talked about it. For weeks, he hadn’t touched the ball. For most of the 2020 season, the one-time lead back in the Detroit Lions backfield had been moved into a different role where he pass-protected more and ran the ball less.
Johnson wants the ball, sure. Every running back in the NFL does on some level. But he also embraced the job the Lions gave him -- come in on passing downs, protect quarterback Matthew Stafford and occasionally, here and there, catch a pass or get a carry.
Except the carries had been largely non-existent. At least until Sunday, when Johnson rushed four times for 29 yards against Minnesota and caught another three passes for 36 yards -- his biggest all-purpose yardage output of the season.
“Last week was pretty fun, honestly,” Johnson said. “Getting to run the ball again was really nice so I was pretty stoked about that. But week-to-week, I just prepare like any other time. Like last year, year before, when I was expected to run the ball a lot by myself.
“That’s the way I go through practice. I take every run seriously in practice.”
That’s where most of his work has been this season. Before Sunday, he hadn’t been given a carry since Week 6 against Jacksonville, when he had four carries for 9 yards. It’s all been part of a diminished statistical workload for him this season, at least in part because of the signing of Adrian Peterson heading into Week 1.
Consider: In Johnson’s first two seasons in Detroit, spanning 18 career games, he never carried the ball less than five times. This season, Johnson has had more than five carries just twice -- in Week 1 and Week 2. Since, he’s rushed the ball three or four times per game if he’s been given the ball at all.
After averaging 11.8 attempts per game as a rookie and 14.1 attempts per game last season, Johnson is averaging 3.6 rushing attempts per game this year. His yards per carry (3.8) is up from last season.
Johnson said Sunday didn’t prove anything to himself -- he always knew he could run and that if he got it, “I could do something with it.” But what it did do, perhaps, was reinforce that he should be getting more of an opportunity in the offense.
Not only would it keep plays where he’s in the game a bit more unpredictable, but it would be using a player who had proven to be a strong runner when he was healthy in 2018 and 2019. And at this point, he’s not looking for all of the carries, either.
The running back by committee with D’Andre Swift, Peterson and Johnson has helped to keep their backs fresh and something Johnson had been hoping for since his rookie year. It’s why he wasn’t bothered last season, either, when he ended up splitting time with Bo Scarbrough once Johnson returned from injury.
“Last year I felt like I played a whole season and I played seven games [actually eight games],” Johnson said. “Just from the first five or whatever before I hurt my knee. Just with the games, with the fall camp, with the summer, with the practices week to week, mentally, physically I was already toast.
“I don’t have that same feeling this year. I don’t think Swift does. I don’t think AP does. So I’ve always been a fan of the running back by committee type thing and we finally got that here and it’s working out very well for us.”
It’s what his coach, Matt Patricia, has always wanted out of his running backs. A group he could turn to that could still be fresh and provide potency in the final games of the season, where in theory his team would be competing for a playoff berth or playing in the postseason.
While that might not happen this year, Detroit is 3-5 at the midway point of the season, it has at least accomplished keeping its running backs active and healthy. And now, they might be finding some more ways to give Johnson the ball.