There are currently three different head coaching vacancies throughout the NFL, and that number seems likely to at least double once the regular season comes to a close. In every single list of potential candidates for these jobs, there is one name that consistently comes up: Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson.
A year ago, Johnson was in his first season running the offense in Detroit. It was his first time in the coordinator role at any level, but the young coach was so successful - his offense finished the season ranked right at the top in nearly every category - that he drew requests to interview for just about every head coaching vacancy. After doing a few interviews, though, Johnson opted to return for another year in Detroit, and is now the top head coaching candidate on every team’s list.
That’s the coach that the Cowboys are now welcoming into AT&T Stadium this week, hoping to get back into the win column. Johnson’s journey to this point is an interesting one. A former walk-on quarterback at North Carolina, Johnson spent eight seasons in various coaching roles with the Dolphins early in his career.
Entering the 2015 season, he was the assistant quarterbacks coach. However, when tight ends coach Dan Campbell was named the interim head coach, Campbell chose to move Johnson over to tight ends. Johnson was then retained by the next head coach, Adam Gase. However, when Gase was fired after the 2018 season, Johnson wound up coaching tight ends in Detroit.
A couple years later, Campbell was hired as the Lions’ new head coach, and Johnson was one of just three assistants to be retained. Halfway through Campbell’s first season on the job, he took over play-calling duties on offense, helping to engineer a second-half turnaround on offense. But with that being Campbell’s first time calling plays, he also charged Johnson with a bigger role in coordinating the offense throughout the week. Not long after the season ended, Johnson was promoted to coordinator and given sole play-calling responsibilities.
This is important context, because the offense operates the way Campbell wants it to operate, but Johnson is the man in control. The relationship between Campbell and Johnson, one that goes nearly a decade back, is the foundation for what this Lions offense has become. Campbell’s offensive philosophy is heavily influenced by his two coaching mentors, Bill Parcells and Sean Payton: he wants a physical offense that can punch a defense in the mouth while still being explosive.
Johnson is merely the conductor of this Lions symphony, using the sheet music from Campbell’s own creation to orchestrate a beautiful melody. And it’s working really well, too. Coming into this game, the Lions are fifth in points per game and fourth in yards per play. They rank fifth in offensive DVOA and seventh in EPA/play, and are also third in explosive play rate.
Ask anyone in Detroit and they’ll tell you that the identity of this offense starts in the trenches. Their offensive line is one of the best in the league, leading the league in adjusted line yards and ranking fifth in adjusted sack rate. They had three starters make the Pro Bowl last year, while veteran left tackle Taylor Decker played at a similar level despite missing almost half the season.
The Lions’ strength in the trenches has dictated their offensive approach. While they’re hardly a ground-and-pound type of offense, Detroit is sixth in total rushing attempts on the year. They also have the 10th-highest early down run rate. Unlike most teams with this type of approach, Detroit is very successful on the ground, ranking fourth in EPA/rush and rush DVOA. Their running back tandem of bruiser David Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs has given defenses fits all year long.
What makes the Lions so dangerous, though, is that they have plenty of weapons in the pass game too. Amon-Ra St. Brown has quickly become one of the best receivers in the NFL. Veterans Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond have found important roles in the receiver rotation as well, with each of them averaging over 13 yards per reception. Meanwhile, speedster Jameson Williams has been integrated into the offense after missing time earlier in the year due to a suspension.
Of course, that’s not all. Rookie Sam LaPorta, a second-round pick out of Iowa, has come in and shattered just about every record for a rookie tight end. He’s fifth among all tight ends in both receptions and yards and leads his position group in touchdown catches. In fact, only three players have caught more touchdowns than LaPorta this year.
He’s quickly become a security blanket for Jared Goff, the quarterback that was included almost as an afterthought in the Lions’ trade of Matthew Stafford back when they first initiated this rebuild under Campbell’s watch. But Goff has revived his career in Detroit, thanks in large part to a stellar supporting cast and a coaching staff that understands his limitations.
From a scheme standpoint, the Lions are agnostics in a league where coaches are devout believers in one specific scheme. Campbell is a mix of old school football and the pass happy West Coast that Payton was so successful with in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Johnson has played and coached under a wide variety of different schemes. With the way this offense has been built, the Lions have the ability to run a wide variety of concepts with great success. They’ve also mastered the trick play, which has become a staple of this Lions team under Campbell and Johnson.
That’s what makes this bunch so hard to defend. They have a ton of different ways to attack and the weapons to make it work. In the rare moments when this offense has faltered, though, it’s come when Goff starts to get careless with the football. While Goff has one of the lowest turnover worthy play rates on the season, he’s ninth in that category when facing pressure.
That’s pretty much the secret to beating this offense, but it’s easier said than done. Goff has one of the faster release times in the league, tied with Dak Prescott at 2.72 seconds per throw, and ranks in the middle of the pack in both pressure rate and sacks. The Cowboys have one of the best pass rushes in the league, which gives them better odds than most in disrupting this Lions attack, but it’s far from a walk in the park. This defense’s ability to make Goff uncomfortable will likely determine their success this week.