Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Calvin Johnson nodded his head vigorously. Roy Williams brought up the subject before we could ask. Yes, in a twist of intuitive irony, the Detroit Lions' big-time receivers couldn't be happier about the team's decision to re-emphasize the running game this season.
More than anything, Lions coach Rod Marinelli envisions the shift as a vehicle for toughening his team. But a natural by-product, both receivers said, should be more opportunities for big plays in the passing game. If all goes well, Williams figures the change will help he and Johnson form one of the top-three receiving duos in the NFL.
"My thing this whole preseason is just for us to run the football," Williams said by phone this week. "I just want us to get that ground game established so we can finally pull the safeties down into the box and give us some chances. In recent years, nobody has ever done that because we couldn't run the ball. That wears on you."
Yes, Williams faced more than his share of double teams in two years under former offensive coordinator Mike Martz. Things fell far out of balance last season, when the Lions attempted the fewest number of running plays (324) in the NFL while throwing the fourth-most passes (587). That combination made them easy to defend despite the gaudy passing numbers Martz's offense produced.
Even with 4,216 passing yards last season, the Lions ranked 16th among NFL teams in points per game (21.6) and 19th in total yards per game (322.9) Neither Williams nor Johnson so much as led the team in receiving, as opponents paid them premium attention while taking their chances with Shaun McDonald (79 receptions) and Mike Furrey (61).
Williams believes that something will have to give if new coordinator Jim Colletto can install a legitimate running game in one summer. Although he almost will certainly see fewer passes than last season, Williams hopes to get a higher percentage of them against favorable coverage -- a formula that elevates his chance to make a big play rather than simply a catch.
In reality, all Williams needs is the threat of a running game -- a balance achieved by the big-play offenses in Indianapolis and Cincinnati, for example.
"I'm not saying we're Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne] of the Colts or anything," Williams said. "But I think Calvin and I can be pretty good on the outside if we get a chance. If this thing works the way we hope, I think we're looking at a breakout season. To me, we'll be the third-best duo in the league."
"Well, Marvin and Reggie are at the top," Williams said. "And then there's T.J. [Houshmandzadeh] and Chad [Johnson] in Cincinnati. That's about it."
The Lions have been nothing if not vigilant about the transition this summer. They have run the ball 96 times in three preseason games, the fifth-highest total in the league, and thrown only 82 passes. If they keep that pace during the 16-game season, they'll finish 2008 with nearly 200 more running plays than they produced last season.
The running game remains a work in progress, having averaged only 3.4 yards per carry this summer as the Lions mix and match personnel in the backfield. But whether it's coincidence or otherwise, the Lions' passing game has been sharper than ever during the preseason.
To the minimal extent that preseason games serve as a regular-season template, it's worth pointing out that Lions quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Drew Stanton share the preseason league lead in quarterback efficiency. Both have a 150.5 rating, and Kitna has proved exceptionally sharp by completing 18 of 21 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson has caught nine passes for 170 yards, including four for at least 20 yards, while Williams has five receptions for 87 yards. Both have caught one touchdown in minimal playing time.
"I can't say I've seen an adjustment from defenses so far in the preseason," Johnson said. "After all, it's the preseason. ... But overall, there's no question. If the running game can be effective this year, they'll have to bring an extra man down into the box. That will only help us on the outside."
Effectiveness would be nice, but the mere commitment to run will be important in determining coverage on Johnson and Williams this season. Even if they draw safeties one step closer to the line of scrimmage than those defenders were last season, the Lions will have taken an important step.
Even if it produces below-average numbers, a dedicated ground attack can't be ignored the same way th
e Lions' running game was last season. An extra step could mean the difference between a 12-yard catch and a 40-yard touchdown. That's all Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson want -- and need.