Despite preseason loss, Lions' running game shows signs of life

Tribune News Service • Aug 11, 2018 at 8:14 AM

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Lions are serious about this running the football thing — and they might finally be halfway decent at it, too.

Rookie Kerryon Johnson ran for 34 yards on seven carries and Ameer Abdullah added a 1-yard touchdown run as the Lions opened the preseason with a 16-10 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Friday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.

A second-round pick out of Auburn, Johnson played as the Lions' third-down back early, behind starter LeGarrette Blount, then did most of his damage in the second half.

And while he played mostly with and against backups, Johnson showed some of the patience, burst and vision that caused the Lions to trade up for him in the draft.

Johnson had five of his seven carries for 21 yards in the third quarter, added four catches for 33 yards, and had a weaving 57-yard run called back on a holding penalty by rookie pick Tyrell Crosby.

Johnson broke one tackle on the play as he weaved his way across the field before being hauled down at the Oakland 5-yard line.

The Lions ranked last in the NFL in rushing last season at a paltry 76.3 yards per game and spent the offseason trying to balance out their high-powered offense for new coach Matt Patricia. They signed Blount in free agency and took Johnson, Crosby and first-round pick Frank Ragnow in the draft.

Matthew Stafford was among a handful of starters who did not play Friday, and the Lions breached the end zone just one time. But they still showed signs of promise in the running game.

Blount had 21 yards rushing on five first-half carries, and Abdullah finished with four carries for 16 yards and a touchdown.

Abdullah, the Lions' starting running back for parts of the last three seasons, is competing for a backup job behind Blount and Johnson this fall, and he made a strong case for playing time Friday. He also worked as the Lions' top kick- and punt returner.

Matt Cassel completed 10 of 18 passes for 81 yards Friday, starting in Stafford's place then returning for a two-minute drive late in the game that ended in a fumble. Jake Rudock entered in the second quarter and finished 12 of 19 for 84 yards.

Derek Carr started and played one series for the Raiders, who scored the game's first 10 points and had a 60-yard Marshawn Lynch touchdown run called back by penalty.

The Lions' starting offense and defense played most of the first quarter.

More observations from Friday’s preseason opener:

• Ragnow played most of the first half at left guard and helped clear the way for Abdullah’s touchdown. Ragnow and Crosby threw key blocks on the play. Both players have had really good training camps so far. Ragnow looks like he’ll be an anchor up front for a long time to come. Crosby had a mixed day, but he has the makings of a draft-day steal.

• The Lions didn’t get much push from their defensive line Friday, which isn’t a huge surprise since that’s the biggest question mark on the team and Ziggy Ansah didn’t play. A’Shawn Robinson missed a tackle on an 11-yard run that helped set up Oakland’s first touchdown, and the Lions were lucky rookie Kolton Miller was called for a hold on Anthony Zettel to wipe out Lynch's long touchdown.

• Keeping Stafford out Friday was 100 percent the right move. There’s no point in putting Stafford on the field for a few plays of live action after he got some good work in joint practices this week. If something happens to Stafford, the Lions’ season is over before it starts. I would expect him to get a quarter or more of work next week against the New York Giants, even though the Lions have another set of joint practices on deck.

• T.J. Lang, Theo Riddick and Nevin Lawson joined Stafford, and Ansah on the bench Friday, and Golden Tate didn’t play after taking a shot to his right knee on his only catch. Tate came up flexing his knee. He tried to run back on the field after one play on the sideline, but Lions receivers coach Robert Prince bear-hugged him from behind to pull him back to the bench.

• If you’re looking for an undrafted rookie with a chance to make the team, keep an eye on cornerback Chris Jones. Jones got some early playing time with the second-team defense as a dime cornerback. Jones has some size at 6 feet and 200 pounds, and Lions general manager Bob Quinn has kept an under-the-rader UDFA cornerback before, Adarius Barnes two years ago. Nevin Lawson got hurt in practice this week and didn’t play in Friday’s first half, but Jones is definitely a player to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

• I know the Lions like their big cornerbacks — they signed DeShawn Shead this offseason and drafted Teez Tabor a year ago — but their lack of speed at that position outside of Darius Slay could be a problem this year. The Raiders matched Martavis Bryant up against both Tabor and Shead at times in the first half with success. Bryant ran away from Tabor on a crossing route in the first quarter, and beat Shead deep on a pass that was thrown incomplete in the second.

• Rough day for Rolan Milligan in his fight for a roster spot. Milligan played second-team safety (ahead of Miles Killebrew, who might just permanently be a linebacker), and got beat by Ryan Switzer on Connor Cook’s touchdown pass (when he slipped on a scramble drill) and missed an open-field tackle in the Raiders’ two-minute field-goal drive to end the first half.

• I know it was their second-team defense, but the Lions were terrible against the hurry-up. Along with Milligan’s missed tackle, Jalen Richard caught two passes on Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Jamal Agnew missed a tackle and the Lions repeatedly let the Raiders get to the sideline to stop the clock. Patricia couldn’t have been happy watching that unfold.

• Finally, enough with the penalties. There were 16 of them enforced Friday. That's part of why preseason football is almost unbearable to watch.

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