Why Lions OC Ben Johnson staying put could shake up the whole NFC in 2024

The Detroit Lions, who saw their 2023 season end in heartbreaking fashion with a 34-31 divisional round loss to the San Francisco 49ers in which they led 24+7 at the end of the first half, got some very good news to cool that particular burn.

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who has been of serious interest as a head coach for multiple NFL teams over the last two seasons, is staying put.

In 2023, the Lions ranked fifth in the NFL in Offensive DVOA (seventh passing, fourth rushing), up from seventh overall in 2022, and 29th in 2021. Johnson took over in 2022, so that tells you a lot.

Under Johnson in 2023, quarterback Jared Goff had his best season to date, completing 484 of 786 passes for a league-high 5,411 yards, 34 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and a passer rating of 98.7. Running backs David Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs combined for 2,287 yards and 28 rushing touchdowns on 469 carries. Rookie tight end Sam LaPorta caught 107 passes on 147 targets for 1,065 yards and 11 touchdowns, and the receiver corps of Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, and the two backs as pass-catchers were as dynamic as any group in the league at times.

Factor in an offensive line that may have the NFL’s best right tackle in Penei Sewell and the NFL’s best center in Frank Ragnow, and it’s easy to see why Johnson wanted to come back for one more season and maybe win a Super Bowl this time around.

The Lions’ offense has been a fascinating study all season long, and here are some of the hallmarks that Johnson and his guys can expand on when next season comes around.

Explosive plays out of heavy personnel.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)
(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Johnson isn’t the only current offensive coordinator to avail himself of heavy personnel to create explosive plays. Kyle Shanahan, and everyone from the Shanahan tree from Mike McDaniel to Matt LaFleur to Bobby Slowik, have learned to upend defenses this way. But Johnson, who comes more from West Coast passing game coaches like Mike Sherman and Darrell Bevell, does this as well as any of the Shanahan guys.

Forcing defenses to play more base out of your heavy personnel is a Big New Thing, and the 2023 Lions played a ton of 12, 13, and 21 personnel. 14 of Goff’s 68 explosive throws this season came out of 12 personnel, with LaPorta and one of several other players at the position helping to create them.

And as was shown on this 46-yard pass to St. Brown against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 10, Johnson will line those tight ends up just about anywhere. Here, LaPorta was in the left slot, and Brock Wright was out wide to that side. When LaPorta and Wright wan matching five-yard in-cuts, the Chargers came up to match them in Quarters coverage, and St. Brown had a clear path upfield.

No matter how the Lions line up, their route spacing and exactness shows up play after play, and that’s a direct reflection of Johnson’s football acumen.

Old-school play-action and extra linemen.

(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)
(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Goff had 27 passing attempts last season with six offensive linemen on the field with 16 completions for 247 yards, 1112 air yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions,and a passer rating of 131.0. Swing tackle Dan Skipper was most frequently the sixth man on the line.

Also, Goff had by far the NFL’s most play-action passes from under center, as opposed to shotgun and pistol attempts that are more common in the league now. Goff has attempted 149 passes with under-center play-action this season; Matthew Stafford of the Los Angeles Rams ranks second with 93. Goff has completed 108 of those 149 attempts for 1,429 yards, 629 air yards, seven touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 115.3.

Against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 18, the Lions burned Brian Flores’ defense for two explosive passing plays with both under-center play-action, and with Skipper as the sixth offensive linemen.

It worked on this 34-yard pass to St. Brown when the Vikings were blitzing out of Cover-2…

As diverse and effective a run game as you'll see in the NFL.

(Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)
(Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports)

A primary reason the Lions were able to open up a serious can against the 49ers in the first half was their run game, which was a horrible matchup for San Francisco’s defense. Montgomery had runs of 14, 15, and 16 yards in that game — one in the first quarter, one in the second quarter, and one in the fourth quarter. You could certainly argue that the decisions not to run on the two fourth-down conversion attempts everybody’s talking about were in-game blunder, but for now, let’s take the 30,000-foot view at the run game Johnson’s put together.

First of all, the Lions do not have one specific run type. This season, Montgomery had 133 zone runs, and 125 gap runs. Gibbs had 99 zone runs, and 103 gap runs. They will throw every concept at you, and with their awesome offensive line, they’re able to make it all work.

Montgomery’s 15-yard run against the 49ers with 14:31 left in the first quarter was inside zone out of 12 personnel with a reduced split. Montgomery had a perfectly manicured lane to both sides, and shook safety Ji’Ayir Brown for a few extra yards once he got upfield.

This could spell trouble for the rest of the NFC.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)
(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Over the last two seasons, Johnson has already done what every great coach does — he took established players, mixed them expertly with new blood, and got the best possible result. What happened last Sunday shouldn’t negate that at all. And with another full year of installs, imagine how creative Johnson can be with the tools he has at his disposal.

Johnson’s answer last week when asked about giving Goff the most possible to work with reflected that approach.

“I think empowering anybody, it doesn’t matter really what position it is, makes them a better player overall because the ownership of it, they tend to want to make that stuff work, either it’s a technique or a specific play,” he said. “That’s been my experience at least. I do say the mistakes I’ve seen over the years when it comes to offensive football is I’ve seen guys come in and they plop down a playbook and try to change the quarterback and there is a degree of growing the quarterback and challenging the quarterback, but I think it still starts with what that quarterback does best. So, that was always our starting point a couple years ago with Jared, what does he do best and then we’ve looked to grow and develop him from there. And so, it’s been very much a hand-in-hand, step-in-step process.”

And it should be even more so next season.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire