Why Lions might actually have hope at running back

The Detroit Lions had the worst rushing offense in the league a season ago. They have not had a 1,000-yard rusher in a season or a 100-yard rusher in a game since 2013.

But watching the Lions against the Oakland Raiders offered something preseason games often do for so many teams around the NFL.

Friday night offered hope.

Kerryon Johnson, against mostly Oakland’s second-team defense, looked like the strong, shifty, potentially game-changing back Detroit has been searching for since Reggie Bush in 2013 (and really, since Barry Sanders in the 1990s).

It wasn’t the highlight 57-yard run that didn’t count, either, that should offer the most confidence in the rookie from Auburn. No, it was a run where he barely got back to the line of scrimmage. It was a busted play, a play that last year would have been a 3-yard loss – or worse.

Yet surrounded by two Oakland defenders, Johnson made both defenders miss before getting back to the line. Yardage disaster saved and the Lions moved on to another play.

“That’s just self-preservation,” Johnson said. “They came fast and it just kind of happened and I was able to save some yards for us.”

Johnson had team-highs in carries (seven), rushing yards (34) and rushing average (4.9). He also had four catches for 33 yards. Most of those, again, were in the second half against backups or players who won’t be in the NFL next month. So there’s reason to temper enthusiasm, although it was important for the Lions to see the skill set they expected him to have when they drafted him.

“Kerryon did a heck of a job. A lot of runs he did a good job on were called back,” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “He’s a workhorse, man. Just to see him do exactly what I see him do every day in practice, that was a highlight for me.”

He did it, though, after the guy he was brought in to potentially replace finished off his night. Ever since Detroit had its run game falter last season, Abdullah has seemed like a possible candidate for a trade or a lesser role. While both of those things still are in play – remember, this is one preseason game and Johnson’s first NFL action – Abdullah showed he still can run the ball like Detroit hoped he would when he was the hotshot second-round pick with a big preseason opener in 2015.

Abdullah had four carries for 16 yards with a touchdown along with one catch for 7 yards. He also played ahead of Johnson, Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington, who didn’t play at all. Theo Riddick, who has a secure role as a pass-catcher in the offense, also didn’t play.

Abdullah also handled Detroit’s early punt returns (instead of Jamal Agnew, who played only on defense and on coverage units) and early kick returns. It was clear the Lions were showcasing Abdullah, either for teams potentially interested in him or to see what he could do with a clear role in the offense.

Based off what he showed and what the Lions got from Johnson and LeGarrette Blount there’s at least reason for some optimism.

But, it’s worth noting the last time Detroit got this good of a performance out of its running backs in the preseason opener was Abdullah’s rookie year, when the Lions finished the regular season last in the NFL in rushing.

So keep Friday night in the proper perspective. But it’s also worth calling what Detroit showed against Oakland something else when it comes to its run game and the investment the team has made in it the last two seasons: progress.