There has been a question plaguing Lions fans since about 2003. Why can’t the Lions run the ball? The 2017 off-season brought big changes to the offensive. Two-thirds of the Lions tight ends have changed.
Better blockers who double as receiving threats came in to keep teams guessing. Jim Bob Cooter remodeled his playbook to the point where the team completely eliminated the fullback position. Presumably, this was done so that there was not an obvious tell built into the offensive personnel groups. The Lions swapped out 40% of their offensive line.
While T. J. Lang and Rick Wagner are not run blocking specialists, they are both competent run blockers. The resources allocated to upgrading the Lions running game are significant. So why can’t they run the ball?
The Lions running backs are not hitting holes. They are trying to carve his own path through a defense, rather than running the called play. The thing about cutbacks is that when they work, they are beautiful things to behold. When they do not work, they actively thwart the efforts of the nine players who are blocking on the play.
When the blocking fails, a cutback can become necessary, and we have seen that a lot from the Lions in 2017. The team is better served in most cases however, by the running back simply hitting the hole and taking a two-yard gain. One time out of 50 the team gets a big gain. The rest of the time they get second and long. Even when the play is successful, blockers come way frustrated and irritated.
A Cutback Example
Transitioning from college football to the NFL is difficult for a lot of running backs because what constitutes a hole is very different at the pro level. In the above play Graham Glasgow and Greg Robinson open a hole in the middle of the field. Zac Kerin and T. J. Lang get to the second level and engage the linebackers.
Darren Fells has Devondre Campbell dealt with on the outside. Fells is in perfect position to prevent his man from affecting an inside run for anything less than a four-yard gain. It is not until the defender feels free to abandon contain that he sheds Fells and takes a line of pursuit to limit a big gain. Even Eric Ebron is effectively blocking, the safety is out of this play for anything less than a seven-yard gain.
This run blocking is reasonably successful. If Abdullah continues to the play side, he can follow Robinson’s pancake, if it still occurs or if Fells gains an advantage the outside is open for a big gain. He may have to make on man miss for that big gain, but the cutback was never going to be bigger than it was. Lang is actively riding his man away from the called play side. That takes the tackler directly to where Abdullah cuts back. When the linebacker decides to shed Lang he encounters little resistance. He is going where Lang wants him to go.