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7 thoughts on the Lions: Ben Johnson’s future, Dan Campbell, and more

A collection of thoughts on the Detroit Lions in the midst of their 4-1 run.

NFL: Washington Commanders at Detroit Lions Junfu Han-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a good time to be a Detroit Lions fan. The team is surging, we’re still talking playoff odds in December, and they’re also somehow closing in on a top-three pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. It’s a rare moment in which everything seems to be going right for the Lions.

So with that, I’ve got a lot on my mind this week after their 40-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, and most of them are pretty darn optimistic.

Here are my seven thoughts on the Lions going into Week 14 of the 2022 season.

1. Yes, it’s time to give some love to Jared Goff

On Detroit’s 4-1 run, Goff has posted the following stat line:

104-of-156 (66.7% completions), 1,118 yards (7.2 Y/A), 7 TDs, 1 INT, 99.8 passer rating

You can try to qualify it all you want. Yes, he’s played some bad pass defenses along the way (Giants, Jaguars, and Bears all rank 27th or lower in pass defense DVOA). Yes, he’s made a couple of throws that were lucky to have not been picked off.

But he has also overcome some serious adversity over that span, too. The Lions’ run game has been incredibly inefficient over that span, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry in the last five games. Goff has had to deal with horrible guard play, leading to early pressure coming right up the middle.

The key for Goff has been limiting turnovers. When he can do that, the offense has been humming. In this five-game stretch, Goff has just a 3.4 turnover-worthy play percentage, whereas that number was at 4.5 for the first eight weeks of the season.

Goff went toe-to-toe with Josh Allen, was key to Detroit’s comeback win over the Bears (remember that 91-yard drive?), and he was the entire gameplan against the Jaguars last week. Which leads me to point No. 2.

2. I underestimated Dan Campbell

From his opening press conference, I feared that Campbell may be too much of an old-school coach, given his obsession with the run game. This quote from that press conference made my stomach churn:

“I want to run the football because there’s a mentality about it. There’s a physicality about it. It makes you better defensively as well, when you do it against yourself in practice.”

Of course, some of that holds true, but in today’s NFL, I want a coach that knows he’ll have to keep pace with guys like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, and on Sunday, Campbell showed me he isn’t afraid to air the ball out all freakin’ game.

Despite the fact that the Lions held at least a two-score lead every second of the contest after the 4:09 mark in the first quarter, Jared Goff threw the ball 41 times on Sunday—more than all but three other quarterbacks in Week 13. They never let off the gas, because they knew the Jaguars couldn’t stop them from succeeding in the passing game.

“We knew that was the best way to attack this team, and I know if you let off the gas too soon, and you start pulling back too soon, bad things can happen,” Campbell said Monday. “There’s a fine line, I know, but we were confident that was the right approach, the right game plan for this defense, and so we did that.”

3. Yes, I’m worried about losing Ben Johnson, and you probably should be, too

I am trying to live in the moment as much as possible and enjoy what is happening with this football team, but Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has already made a name for himself, and the national attention is mounting.

I can already hear you saying, “But he’s only called plays for a half-season!” Sorry, this is today’s NFL, and young, offensive-minded coaches are almost as coveted as franchise quarterbacks on a rookie deal. Last year, the Vikings hired offensive-minded Kevin O’Connell, who may have served a couple years as offensive coordinator with the Rams, but never called plays in the NFL. The Dolphins hired Mike McDaniel, who had called plays for a single season with the 49ers.

Johnson may not have a ton of play-calling experience, but the man has been coaching at the NFL level for a decade. He’s put in plenty of dues, and no matter what you personally think about Jared Goff, people around the NFL are going to be damn impressed that a Goff-led offense is currently sixth in the NFL in points scored.

4. I don’t like the idea of playing Jameson Williams at gunner, but I get it

The fellas on the FOX NFL pregame show had a good laugh at the Lions after news broke that first-round rookie Jameson Williams was going to play some gunner reps in his NFL debut against the Jaguars.

“That’s why Detroit struggles,” Howie Long said with a chuckle.

And I get it. This team invested heavily in this player, so putting him at an additional injury risk for a play as—let’s face it—insignificant as punt coverage is a risk. I don’t think playing gunner is as big of an injury risk as some are making it out to be, but it’s not like the Lions were struggling in that unit and needed his services.

Obviously, that never happened because the Lions didn’t punt in the game, but here’s how Campbell rationalized the decision:

“We felt like that was the biggest impact he could have today,” Campbell said. “That we knew just outright because he can run. And he can do it, he’s tough, he’s physical, and he was all for it. But we didn’t punt.”

The goal of Sunday for Williams was to get his feet under him and normalize the game-day experience for him again. Having him sprint down the field and potentially hit a guy on a punt return is a good way to do all of that. It’s physical, it’s fast.

It was just also completely unnecessary.

5. James Houston could be special

I don’t know how Houston is doing at every other part of his job that doesn’t entail pass rushing, but if he can grow there, Houston may be a bigger late-round steal than Malcolm Rodriguez. Through two games, Houston has shown ridiculous athleticism, including a bend that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a Detroit Lions jersey. Just look at the way he can dip his shoulder and maintain his balance in all three of these plays:

His pass rush moves will have to grow and evolve, but apparently, Houston has been kicking ass in practice for the better part of a month. This may only be the tip of the iceberg for him.

6. Hey... so the Lions’ special teams are good again

Detroit’s special teams units aren’t exactly headlined by world beaters. Punt returner Kalif Raymond hasn’t been much of a weapon throughout his career. Justin Jackson had only returned five kickoffs in the NFL before landing in Detroit. And Michael Badgley has already bounced around a couple teams this year.

Yet the Lions currently rank second in the NFL in kickoff return average (26.5), eighth in punt return average (10.9), and Badgley is currently third in the NFL in field goal accuracy (93.8%). He also has not missed an extra point.

Badgley doesn’t bring a ton of power, but he is 2-for-2 from 50+ yards thus far, and he’s been dependable from shorter than that. Maybe the Lions don’t need to spend a draft pick on a kicker...

7. Happy for DJ Chark

Chark has had a really tough couple of years. After his breakout 2019 Pro Bowl season, which saw him pull in 73 catches, 1,008 yards, and eight touchdowns, he’s had to battle through a lot of adversity. Injuries forced him to miss three games in 2020. He had to deal with a toxic locker room culture in 2021, and then a broken ankle cost him all but four games that season.

He came to Detroit impressed by the team’s culture and eager to fill Detroit’s big need for an outside receiver. But another ankle injury forced him out of the lineup for six games.

Everyone was wondering if this week would mean more to Chark, to get revenge on the team he had a sour ending with. However, with Urban Meyer gone and a lot of friends still on that Jaguars, Chark insisted that revenge was not at all on his mind, and I believe him.

However, Chark clearly did have extra motivation on Sunday, but that came from his desire to prove to himself and everyone else that when he’s feeling physically well, he can still ball.

“I’ve missed six games, so at this point, every game is circled on the calendar,” Chark said. “I just want to get out there and show myself what I can do. I’m happy that I was able to get back in time to play in this game, but for me, really, every game is the same. The season is coming to an end. We could have a chance to push further. We’ll see how that goes. I just want to go out there and showcase my talent, and help this team win because we can.”

Almost immediately, Chark made an impact and hauled in a 41-yard bomb. It was Goff’s second-longest completion of the season by air yards. And after the game, the Lions awarded Chark with the game ball.

You can see just how much this game meant to him, and he deserves it. The book is not yet written on this young man’s career—he’s only 26—and I’m eager to see what he can do down the stretch because I’m not counting out a return to Detroit.

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