In the 1990s, Detroit was a team with a talented run game that other teams would attempt to stop to no avail. During the 10-year career of Hall-of-Famer Barry Sanders (1989-98), the Lions finished as a top-10 rushing offense six times.
Once Sanders retired, the running game fell to the wayside. Teams were no longer were worried about trying to stop the Lions on the ground; going into the 2018 NFL season, the team had not had a 100-yard rushing game since 2013.
Enter Auburn fan favorite and 2017 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, Kerryon Johnson.
Johnson came into the 2018 NFL season with lofty expectations, not only from himself, but from his team as well. The Lions traded up eight spots in the second round to get Johnson with the purpose of him helping spark the run game.
The Lions knew that they needed to add a solid run game to be successful and were hoping Johnson, along with fellow running backs LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick, would be able to assist in creating the run game before the season started.
“I watch the NFL,” Johnson told SB Nation in the preseason. “I’m a fan. You’ve got to physically be able to pound it. When I’m called upon, I see my role as simple: Get yards, make first downs and make touchdowns. I guess the guy I’ve modeled myself after is Reggie Bush. I think we have a similar style.”
It wasn't until the third game of the regular season when Johnson would have his "Welcome to the NFL" moment. In Week 3, Johnson became the running back to break the Lions 100-yard rushing drought that had plagued the team since 2013 for a total of 70 games.
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In that third game of the season on Sunday Night Football in the Motor City, Johnson had 16 carries for a total of 101 yards in the Lions 26-10 win over the would-be AFC Champion New England Patriots.
The running back whom Johnson models himself after, Bush, was the last Lions running back to rush for a 100 yards before Johnson did it himself.
The moment was distinctive for the rookie as he not only ended the drought but also received a shoutout on Twitter from Sanders.
It would not be the last time the Hall of Famer would take notice of Johnson during his rookie season.
The following week against the Dallas Cowboys, Johnson had his first NFL touchdown — an 8-yard run that included Johnson running through Cowboys safety Jeff Heath to get into the end zone for the score.
Lions fans were now seeing Johnson's talent on full display, quickly adopting a mantra Auburn fans know well: "Keep Calm and Kerryon."
The rookie's momentum continued to build. Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins, Johnson had his best game of the season, rushing for 158 yards on 19 carries and finishing with an average of 8.32 yards a carry. The Lions 248 total rushing yards was their best day on the ground since 1997 — during the Sanders era.
Once again, the rookie got another big-time shoutout from the legendary Sanders on Twitter.
In a postgame interview following the 158-yard day in Miami, the ever-humble Johnson credited his success to the offensive line.
“Whenever you average over eight yards a carry, that means you did very little, and the O-line did a lot of work," Johnson said. "So those guys keep opening up holes, and I’m doing my job running through them, and it works out.”
Johnson would continue to gain yardage on the ground for the Lions following the Miami game. Unfortunately for the Lions, the three games following Miami were against all top-15 rushing defenses and the team struggled offensively. Johnson was still able to find the end zone against the Chicago Bears in Week 10.
Johnson then suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Lions' Week 11 win against fellow Auburn alumnus Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers.
In the game against Carolina, Johnson was headed toward another 100-yard rushing performance before leaving in the second half with the injury; he already compiled 87 rushing yards on 15 carries and one touchdown.
Johnson was placed on the injured reserve list on Dec. 19, effectively shutting him down for the remainder of the 2018 season after playing in 10 games and starting in seven.
Johnson's season may have ended prematurely, but the rookie still finished the year with 641 yards on 118 carries and three touchdowns. Johnson also flashed his pass-catching ability with 32 receptions and 213 yards.
Johnson's 5.4 average yards-per-rush put him second in the league behind Green Bay's Aaron Jones (5.5). The former Tiger helped turn around a Lions run game that finished with an average of 3.4 in that category two seasons ago.
For now, Johnson will rehab, and the Lions will await the return of their emerging star tailback who, along with his offensive line, have helped bring a run game back to Detroit.
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