Last week, Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell revealed something that was a bit curious, but potentially very important to the makeup of the team. Campbell said the tight ends coach Ben Johnson has been getting more and more involved in the development of Detroit’s struggling passing game.
“Ben Johnson is helping a lot with the pass game right now, so I’ve kind of moved him a little bit from – he still works with the tight ends, but I’ve got him working more with pass game now,” Campbell said. “So, I’ve shifted that, so he’s helped a lot. And then of course, (offensive coordinator) Anthony Lynn is dealing with run game and protections, things of that nature.”
That sort of shift in responsibilities is not to be understated. With Lynn already having had play calling duties taken away from him, and now being relegated to the running game is significant, and will probably have some ramifications in the offseason.
But where did Johnson come from? How did he earn these responsibilities? Well, it’s not just out of nowhere. Johnson has been coaching offense in the NFL for a decade now. He’s been a tight ends, quarterback and wide receivers coach at this level, and he also has a history with Campbell, having coached alongside him in Miami for four years. He also played quarterback for UNC.
“Ben’s been awesome,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “Ever since I got here, he’s been one the guys that you can kind of rely on as a good voice and understands kind of everything that we’re trying to do. Since he’s been in that role, being able to lean on him and asking these questions and having him take some ownership over some stuff has been really cool. He’s guy who’s got a lot of experience in the quarterback room and applying himself back in his time. But, it’s been a lot of fun working with him.”
What he’s actually doing behind the scenes is still a bit of a mystery. Goff mentioned that he’s bringing more ideas to the table, helping focus on the things the team does well, and has been, above all else, an effective teacher.
And the changes in Detroit’s passing game over the past couple weeks have been noticeable. The team is pushing the ball downfield more. For the first nine games of the season, Goff was averaging 6.04 air yards per pass attempt—by far the lowest in the league. Over the last two games, that number is 7.43, which falls much closer to the league average. Goff’s intended air yards of 8.8 last week was eighth in the NFL.
And it worked. On Sunday against the Vikings, the Lions put up 29 points—their highest total since Week 1—and got their first win of the season. Sure, there are other factors at work, like the addition of wide receiver Josh Reynolds, better weather conditions and a healthier Jared Goff, but just about everyone in the building has taken notice of Johnson and his ability to coach.
“I’ve been impressed with Ben from Day 1,” quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell said. “He has a lot of experience. He’s been coaching in the NFL for 10 years. Still young—35 years old—and he’s been around a lot. I’ve learned a lot from Ben, and not just since the last couple weeks or whatever, but since the day I stepped foot on this facility. I’ve learned a lot from him as far as offensive football, passing game, coaching, and he’s been around some good coaches and I’m fortunate that I get to be around him.”
If the Lions passing game continues to improve, you have to wonder if Johnson is due for a promotion coming up, whether it be as an official passing game coordinator or potentially even offensive coordinator. Whatever the Lions decide to do with him, it’s clear he’s already made an impression on both players and the coaching staff—including the man he could potentially replace at offensive coordinator, if the Lions decide to make a change.
”I think Ben’s done an outstanding job with that,” Lynn said. “I noticed that a month or two into the job. I didn’t know some of these guys before I got here, but I think in the passing game, with his background, being a former quarterback who has been around the passing game, he’s outstanding in that area. He’s helped a lot.”