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Giving Kerryon Johnson more carries vs. Cowboys wouldn’t have changed anything

The Lions’ running game wasn’t going anywhere with or without Johnson.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Kerryon Johnson: 9 carries, 55 yards, 1 TD
LeGarrette Blount: 7 carries, 12 yards

It’s hard to look at that and not think, “Why is Blount getting any carries at all?” The picture looks even worse when you look at the season totals. Johnson is averaging 5.7 yards per carry on 38 rushes. Blount is averaging 2.7 yards per carry on 35 rushes. Yeah, Johnson is getting three more yards PER CARRY than Blount right now.

These facts fuel the fire that the Detroit Lions are being downright irresponsible with their running back usage. Despite the large disparity in productivity, their touches are nearly identical and their playing time is fairly similar (104 snaps for Johnson, 70 for Blount).

Fans were especially frustrated with the Lions’ usage of Johnson on Sunday against the Cowboys. After taking the opening carry for 32 yards, Johnson ran the ball just eight more times the entire game, effectively shutting down the team’s running game the rest of the way.

However, looking a little closer into the situation, it becomes pretty clear: Giving Kerryon Johnson more carries on Sunday would’ve made very little difference in the overall outcome. Here’s why:

Kerryon Johnson wasn’t efficient running the ball

Last week, I gushed about Johnson’s amazing performance against the Patriots. Nearly every one of his carries throughout the first 55 minutes of that game were “successful.” Here’s what I wrote:

More impressively, however, was that at one point in Sunday’s game, Kerryon Johnson was “successful” in 10 out of first 11 carries. Johnson “failed” on his five final rushes, as the Patriots loaded the box, knowing that Detroit was simply trying to run out the clock.

Basing success on Football Outsiders’ metrics, against the Cowboys, Johnson was successful on just three of nine rushes.

Another impressive part of Johnson’s performance in Week 3 was his ability to eliminate rushes of little-to-no gain. Only one of 16 runs was stopped for a yard or less. Against the Cowboys, it was a much different story:

Here was the progression of Johnson nine carries in order: 32 yards, 4, -1, 1, 0, 3, 2, 0, 8, 6.

So during the middle portion of the game—when many argued Johnson deserved more touches—Johnson had 5 yards on six carries.

Admittedly, LeGarrette Blount wasn’t any better (1.7 YPC for the game), but it’s not like Johnson was giving Detroit’s running game a boost at that point in the game.

Rhythm myth

Many believe that for a running back to be successful, he needs to be in the game consistently to get a feel for the game. Players will especially harp on this point, as Ameer Abdullah did this offseason on the Michael Rapaport podcast:

“It’s frustrating, especially coming from Nebraska where I was the guy,” Abdullah said. “I knew I was going to get the ball at least 20 times a game, and for me, it’s not necessarily getting a certain amount of touches, it’s getting meaningful touches and getting into a rhythm.”

But there is little empirical evidence supporting the idea of “getting into a rhythm”. Several studies have been done on the topic, and—much like the basketball “hot hand” myth—there is no statistical basis for this theory. From PFF’s Kevin Cole:

The line on the graph represents the smoothed regression for YPC as attempts increase. You can see that it starts falling almost immediately, so the decline isn’t simply due to running against loaded boxes at the end of games.

All you have to do is go back to last week and see that Johnson was still very effective despite splitting time with Blount throughout the entire game. Here’s a look at the progressions of carries from Week 3:

Blount, Blount, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Johnson, Johnson, Blount, Blount

If Johnson’s rhythm was disrupted by this constant switching of backs—often times in the middle of drives—we certainly didn’t see any signs of it in his on-field performance in Week 3, so there’s no reason to believe Johnson’s lack of rhythm was the cause of his struggles on against the Cowboys.

T.J. Lang injury

Lang has been one of the Lions’ best offensive linemen since he joined the team last year. Unfortunately, the injury has caused him to miss a lot of time, and the Lions have struggled to find an adequate replacement. That was certainly the case on Sunday. Before his injury, the Lions rushed for 40 yards on six carries. Yes, that is heavily skewed by a 32-yard run, but the rest of the way, Johnson and Blount combined for just 27 yards on 11 carries (2.5 YPC).

The other factor here is the Dallas defense. The Cowboys are allowing just 3.6 yards per carry as a team (sixth best). This isn’t the Patriots defense, there was just not much room to run, and with Lang out, Detroit couldn’t run the ball no matter who was in the game.

When would the Lions have given Johnson more carries?

I’ve seen a lot of people complain about Johnson getting more touches, but I haven’t seen many suggest specific times he should’ve been in the game.

And herein lies the problem. In the first half, Johnson got six carries, which is a respectable number. I can understand if you wanted a little more in the first half (Blount had five), but if you think the Lions abandoned their gameplan in the second half, that would be highly misleading.

The Lions offense barely even had the ball in the second half. Because of the defense’s ineptitude, the Lions had just three possessions in the second half and 16 total plays. By comparison, the Cowboys had four possessions and 42 plays.

So of the Lions’ 16 second half plays, they gave Johnson the ball three times. Should that number have been higher? Maybe, but remember, they were also playing from behind for much of the second half, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities to run the ball. Also, the Lions managed to score touchdowns on two of their three possessions in the second half, so it’s not like their overall efficiency needed much improvement.

Or to sum up a little less poetically:

Durability

No one wants to say it, but Kerryon Johnson isn’t built to be a complete workhorse back in the NFL. That option is only available to a very select few, your Ezekiel Elliotts and Adrian Petersons. At 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Kerryon Johnson doesn’t have the body size to get 20+ carries a game, and the Lions would be abusing their power if they were to do that to a player like him just a few games into his NFL career.

Auburn didn’t seem afraid of that (he averaged 23.8 carries per game his senior year), but it resulted in a broken-down Johnson.

The only thing that might stand in his way is a slightly worrisome injury history that dates back to high school—at Auburn, he missed time with everything from hamstring to ribs to shoulder to ankle issues, and he suffered shoulder, knee and thumb injuries at Madison Academy in Alabama.

The days of a workhorse back are nearly through in the NFL, and Johnson doesn’t fit the profile for that increasingly rare role.

That being said, there’s a pretty big difference between nine and 20 carries per game. On an average week, there’s no doubt that Johnson should be getting closer to at least 15 carries a game. But against the Cowboys, the opportunities weren’t there, the productivity wasn’t there, and the game situation made it so a more involved Kerryon Johnson wouldn’t have likely changed anything about how the game played out.

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