Last year around this time exactly, I tried to temper expectations about the Detroit Lions’ running game. Ameer Abdullah had just polished off a 17-rush, 86 yard performance, and the Lions finished with 138 rushing yards and a solid 4.3 yards per carry.
It was all fool’s gold, I argued. Take away just two rushes from that Monday night game against the Giants, and the Lions rushed for just 57 yards on 27 carries. For most of the night, the Lions’ rushing attack was awful. The Lions proved my hypothesis right, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry for the entire season.
I will not be making that same argument today after Kerryon Johnson ended the Lions’ five-year drought without a 100-yard rusher. I won’t be making that argument because the Lions’ performance on Sunday night was for real. The box score isn’t lying. The Lions’ run game was phenomenal against the Patriots, and the deeper you dig into the statistics, the more impressive Johnson’s night becomes.
Let’s break it down.
So much production on so few carries
Not only did Johnson eclipse the 100-yard mark, but he did so on just 16 carries. I was curious how rare it was to break the century mark on so few touches, and it seems to happen fairly often. Since 2014, it’s happened 18 times, according to Pro Football Reference.
But what sets apart Johnson’s performance is, unlike Abdullah’s game against the Giants last year, he didn’t rely on a single big carry. His longest run was of just 15 yards. In those 18 instances of 100-yard games on 16 or fewer carries, 16 running backs required a rush of at least 36 yards. Johnson wasn’t just efficient with a big run or two; all of his runs were efficient.
Measuring Johnson’s efficiency
So how can we measure just how good Johnson’s performance was? Yards per carry doesn’t tell the entire story, because while 6.3 YPC is very impressive, players with long rushes skew those numbers heavily.
So instead, let’s use Football Outsiders’ method of measuring efficiency. Here’s how they explain it:
On first down, a play is considered a success if it gains 45 percent of needed yards; on second down, a play needs to gain 60 percent of needed yards; on third or fourth down, only gaining a new first down is considered success.
So using that metric, what was Johnson’s success rate?
62.5 percent or 10 out of 16 carries.
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.
First down machine
Six of Kerryon’s 16 carries earned first downs on Sunday night. He converted on three first downs, two second downs and one third down. Comparatively speaking, the Patriots earned 12 total first downs.
Yeah, Kerryon’s day was outstanding by box score standards, but what happens when you analyze how he earned his yards? When taking into account his blocking, his ability to break tackles and his vision did his performance stand up?
Yeah, he did alright:
The top graded players on the Detroit Lions offense last night. pic.twitter.com/q8jxE9VX1B— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 24, 2018
The only thing to keep in mind here to temper expectations is the Patriots’ defense. Through three games, New England ranks 30th in rushing yards allowed per game (143.3) and t-22nd in yards per carry (4.7).
Still, Johnson took advantage of every opportunity he got on Sunday night, and that’s something we haven’t been able to say about a Lions running back in a long, long time.