Numbers say it: Kerryon Johnson should be Detroit's featured back

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Kerryon Johnson got the start Sunday. On his first carry, he ran for 32 yards. Then, the Detroit Lions quizzically went away from their rookie running back, just a week removed from his first 100-yard game.

Of Detroit’s 54 offensive snaps Sunday against Dallas, Theo Riddick had 25, Johnson 20 and LeGarrette Blount 14. It was a decision that made little sense in real time and not much more sense later on – especially after Lions coach Matt Patricia explained his running back usage Monday afternoon.

“We have a lot of really good running backs, and I think we try to use them appropriately,” Patricia said. “I think Kerryon played a significant amount of the game, 20 snaps out of 55, that’s a good amount. Plus, we have two other running backs. Plus, we have two-minute drives in there with some other personnel packages and things like that.

“So it was quite a bit of reps in there for Kerryon.”

Except it really wasn’t. Johnson played 37 percent of the Lions’ offensive snaps and had 10 total touches (nine carries for 55 yards, a 6.1-yard average, and one catch for 1 yard). Consider that six NFL running backs this week had as many carries in a game as Johnson had snaps: Ezekiel Elliott, Sony Michel, Carlos Hyde, David Johnson, Mike Davis and Marshawn Lynch. And 31 running backs in the league had more touches than Johnson.

Four teams – New England, Baltimore, Jacksonville and Chicago – had two backs each with more touches than Johnson accumulated in a game that Patricia felt Johnson got “quite a bit” of reps in. Meanwhile, the Lions also gave Blount seven carries, for which he totaled 12 yards.

This has been more than one game, though. Statistically, Johnson and Blount have been in a timeshare as far as actual rushes. Johnson has 38 rushes for 216 yards (5.68 yards per rush). Blount has 35 carries for 95 yards (2.71 yards per rush). If Blount’s obvious role were as a short-yardage, goal-line back then these numbers would make sense.

But it hasn’t been Blount’s role. He has been used all over the field. And that has been part of the problem with how the Lions have used their 21-year-old rookie – who would clearly have fresher legs than the 31-year-old veteran.

Patricia wouldn’t say who, exactly, was making the decisions on which running back plays when, either.

“That would be a staff decision,” Patricia said. “And something that I’m definitely aware of and on top of.”

In the larger scheme of things, Johnson has been outsnapping Blount, 101-65. Riddick, the team’s two-minute/third-down back, has the most snaps of any running back with 112 – but that makes sense both because of the clear role Riddick has in the offense and because Detroit has trailed late in three of four games.

Johnson is averaging about 25 snaps a game and he leads all Lions offensive players in touches, with 49 – essentially getting the ball about half the time he’s in the game. He has 11 more touches than the second-highest Lions player, Blount, who has 38.

But realistically, considering what Detroit is trying to do with the offense, it might be too few. A week ago, Johnson said he felt like he could handle about 20 touches a game, or about eight more than he’s getting now between rushes and receptions. That could increase based on game flow, but should realistically come at the expense of Blount in certain situations.

Patricia, though, might be trying to keep Johnson fresh throughout the season, considering he referenced full-season studies he has looked at about running back usage and production. Plus, he comes from a New England system where carries and reps are often diversified depending on the game and matchup.

“We do a lot of studies on full seasons and where guys are at the end of seasons, especially running backs and especially that position indirectly you’ll find guys at the beginning of the season were at a high, productive level and by the time they get to the end of the season, the wear and tear of that position is pretty extreme,” Patricia said. “You get to the end of the year and those guys aren’t maybe out there as much so you kind of take a look at it from a big-picture standpoint.

“But from a game-by-game standpoint and a play-by-play standpoint, we’re obviously trying to compete at a high level. Want to have our best players out there at all times that we can and, you know, we feel like we have a really good, strong running back group.”

There’s the tough balance for Detroit. If the plan is to really keep Johnson fresh for later in the season – a question considering at 1-3 the Lions seem to be in a tough early-season bind – how often can they really limit their best rusher in a game-by-game, play-by-play basis without it costing the team too much to where the late-season strategy would pay off?

Because right now, it seems like a Lions offense with Kerryon Johnson on the field is much better than one without.