Last Year’s Rushing Offense, The Lions’ Backfield, And The Running Game Going Forward.
The Detroit Lions’ running game was dreadful last year. It has been dreadful for a long time. Last year the Lions’ backfield averaged 3.7 yards per carry, ranking 30th. They averaged 81.9 yards per game in the regular season, also ranking 30th. They ranked only slightly better at 26th when it came to touchdowns, and according to SportingCharts.com, they ranked 28th in rushes over 10 yards and were stuffed for loss or no gain a league leading 13.4 percent of the time.
The group, as a whole, was not just underwhelming, but flat out ineffective. There was not a single member of the Lions’ backfield that had success running the football last year. Among running backs with at least 80 carries last year, Theo Riddick led the league in “stuffed percentage” with 18.5 percent of his attempts getting stopped before gaining positive yardage. Zach Zenner and Dwayne Washington were stuffed 15.9 and 10 percent respectively, with Zenner ranking third among running backs with more than 80 carries.
Those statistics are essentially a lot of different ways of saying, “The Detroit Lions’ running game was really bad.” There are a lot of places to put the blame for the Lions’ non-existent rushing attack last year, and not all of that blame falls on the shoulders of the Lions’ backfield. Let’s take a look at some of the issues that the Lions were facing in 2016 and the outlook for improvement.
The Rushing Issues In 2016
The Lions’ backfield dealt with serious injury issues last year. Injuries happen every year. They happen to every team. They are unpredictable and can potentially ruin seasons and force teams to field players that they had hoped would never hit the field. This was the case for the Lions last year. The Lions suffered so many injuries that they brought in Joique Bell, a player the Lions had already cut, seeing no viable position for him on the roster. They brought in Justin Forsett, an aging veteran that nobody had wanted to roster through the first five weeks of the regular season. Going into the Week six game against the LA Rams, Forsett, in his first week as a Lion, was one of two healthy players in the Lions’ backfield. The injury situation was a nightmare scenario.
While injuries are unpredictable by nature, I think it would be realistic to expect that we don’t see the same number and severity of injuries to the Lions’ backfield in the 2017 season. If the Lions can at least stay healthier than they were in 2016, we should see improvement, regardless of all other factors.
Run Blocking Effectiveness And Scheme
The statistics that I referenced earlier involving run stuffs really speak more to the blocking than the ability of the running back. When a back is being hit at the line of scrimmage or in the backfield, it is tough to blame the ball carrier. There are obviously plays where running backs can break tackles in the backfield, or make a quick cut to get upfield, but this shouldn’t be something that is expected of a back on a play to play basis. Running backs are obviously more effective when they get time to set up blockers and find a running lane. When you get hit behind the line of scrimmage as often as the Lions’ backfield was, you get a pedestrian rushing attack.
Things get a little murky when you start to try and decipher where to place the blame for the blocking. Is it the fault of the linemen? Are they just not cut out to move bodies and create lanes for the running back? Or are the linemen capable players that are being put in bad positions by their blocking scheme.
In 2015, under Joe Lombardi, the Lions ran for over 100 yards only once through the first seven weeks of the season. In week eight, the Lions promoted Jim Bob Cooter to offensive coordinator. He had the exact same players to work with. There were no significant changes to the personnel that he had available to him. None of the players learned how to block overnight, yet the Lions rushed for over 100 yards five times down the stretch. Cooter changed the blocking scheme and made it simpler. This led to a more productive run game.
In order for the run game to be effective in 2017, both of those things have to improve. The Lions’ offensive line is young and still has plenty of room for growth. We need to see improvement from them next year if we expect to have any semblance of a rushing attack. Jim Bob Cooter also needs to get better. His blocking scheme, while an improvement on Lombardi’s, needs to get better as well. Coaches need to put players in better situations to execute, and players need to execute more consistently.
While we can all agree that Jim Bob Cooter has done some fantastic things for the Detroit offense, Stafford specifically, play calling was not his strength last year. The wide receiver screens and jet sweeps were unbearable before we even hit the halfway point of the season. Cooter deployed those plays as an extension of a poor running game, but those plays work because they are unpredictable. When they become predictable, they become ineffective. The creativity was lacking throughout the year in Cooter’s play calling, and it needs to get better.
While the run game was not specifically the issue with the play calling, better plays make for better production across the board. Taking more shots downfield opens up the running game and short passing game. The consistently quick passing attack crowds players closer to the line and makes rushing less efficient.
The Lions need to diversify their play calling going forward if they have any hopes of having an effective rushing attack. Cooter needs to open up the playbook and become less predictable in order to get the Lions’ backfield some space to operate. Cooter is still a young and developing coach, so I think this is an area that we can expect notable improvement next year.
The Lions’ Backfield
Abdullah is an interesting back for the Lions going into the 2017 season. The Lions drafted him early, expecting him to be a lead back. Thus far, he has not lived up to those expectations.
Ameer Abdullah started his rookie season off with a bang. He scored a 24-yard touchdown on his first NFL carry and set the bar pretty high for himself. Unfortunately, his rookie season was derailed by fumbling issues, being forced to spend a large chunk of it watching from the bench. This is the first of two common concerns with Abdullah.
The second major concern with Abdullah is his ability to stay on the field. He missed most of the last season with a foot injury that he suffered in Week two against the Titans. He later went on the injury reserve, effectively ending his season. Between the benching and the foot injury, we have not seen a full season of production from Abdullah.
Fumbling is likely to always be a concern. It was an issue for him in college. It has been an issue for him professionally. However, he made significant strides in this area. In his first six games as a Lion, Abdullah fumbled four times in 54 carries. He coughed the ball up only once in the remaining 89 carries of 2015. This is still a pretty dreadful fumble rate on the whole, but it is an improvement.
The narrative of Abdullah being injury prone is an interesting one. Many people associate his lack of playing in his rookie season with an injury. This wasn’t the case. However, last year’s injury, his recent surgery, and his slight frame are cause for concern. Abdullah is almost certainly never going to be a 20+ carry-per-game running back. He is never going to have to shoulder that workload. It’s too early to slap the “injury-prone” label on him, but we should never expect him to be a workhorse back.
I would expect Abdullah to be the most significant contributor to the improvement of the Lions rushing attack going forward. He is an immediate improvement over every other player we have on the roster in terms of vision and that big-play ability. If nothing else improves for the Detroit run game next year, we should see a bump in our numbers due to having a few more big plays. Depending on how the draft shakes out, we can probably expect somewhere between 10 and 15 carries a game. If he stays healthy, we are looking at a completely different Lions’ running game next year.
There is a lot to like about Theo Riddick. He is elusive. He has excellent hands. His route-running is electric. He has a knack for finding holes in coverage. Unfortunately, none of these things make him an effective ball-carrier. Riddick’s vision is suspect, and he doesn’t have the strength to fight through contact and gain yards between the tackles. For a team that has struggled to keep defenders on the other side of the line-of-scrimmage, this is a recipe for disaster.
We always knew that Riddick was not built for between the tackles running or running in general. His strength has always been in the passing game. Lombardi really didn’t even put him in the game unless he planned on throwing the ball. This was obviously not an effective choice because it tipped off defenses, but the fact remains that Riddick has always been more of a receiver who lined up as a running back.
With a healthy Abdullah and the likely addition of a running back in the draft, we should expect to see Riddick’s role as a runner significantly diminish in 2017. When Abdullah was healthy last year, Riddick still saw a significant number of carries, but after a year of ineffective running, I would be surprised to see that workload persist. Riddick will likely move to a change-of-pace role who will continue to have significant contributions in the passing game.
With the depressing lack of depth at receiver, Riddick may also see some time as a slot receiver. Whether Cooter decides to line him up there or motion him out of the running back position, I think we will see a lot more of Riddick playing that wide receiver role. Getting Riddick out against linebackers and safeties in the passing game is where he can really do some damage. If Riddick is seeing more than five carries a game, we are either hurting with injuries or not properly utilizing the players that we have.
If position battles were won by popularity contests, Zach Zenner might be seeing 30-40 carries a game next year. Unfortunately (or fortunately), they are not. Zenner has been a fan-favorite since the preseason of last year. We were all disappointed when he went down with injury and never got a chance to contribute his rookie season.
Last year, due to a wave of injuries to the Lions’ backfield, Zenner finally got the chance to show us what he was capable of. The results were unimpressive but serviceable. As much as we wanted to see him destroy NFL defenses, I don’t think anyone ever really expected it. However, he showed himself to be a breath of fresh air down the stretch. His 3.8 yards per carry were pretty dismal, but somehow a significant improvement over Dwayne Washington.
I think most of us enjoy watching Zenner get the football, but if he plays anywhere close to the role that he played in 2016, the Lions are probably in trouble. Zenner serves best as a backup running back that provides solid depth for the Lions’ backfield. He may carry the ball here and there when players get tired. He may play a goal line role depending on who the Lions add in the draft. If Zenner is seeing the field for significant stretches of time, we’ve probably suffered some injuries.
Washington, the Lions’ seventh-round draft pick, had a horribly ineffective rookie season. For stretches of games, it would get painful to watch. Washington, considered a raw running back prospect in the draft, showed his inexperience on the field. His 2.9 yards per carry, with only one game averaging more than 4, were pretty much as bad as we could have imagined.
Dwayne Washington just wasn’t ready to play at the NFL level yet. Seventh round draft picks rarely are. Washington remains very young and hasn’t accumulated much experience at the running back position. This leaves a lot of room for growth. Whether or not that growth actually happens… We’ll see.
I expect that whoever the Lion’s draft will likely be the between-the-tackles banger that Washington is striving to be. Washington will likely be fighting for a roster spot with Zenner when training camps start. Despite the fact that Zenner has no draft capital invested in him, I expect Zenner to have the edge in that battle. Washington lost the faith of the coaches late in the season, ceding almost his entire workload to Zenner. With that in mind, the offseason is long, and a lot can happen between now and then.
Will the Lions improve their dreadfully poor run game in 2017? Almost certainly. There isn’t a lot of room to get worse. This Lions team is probably not going to focus itself on the run as long as Stafford is our quarterback. The rushing attack doesn’t need to be statistically impressive. It just needs to be efficient. With our two lead backs returning to health, we should see immediate improvement, regardless of how the other factors play out. Jim Bob Cooter is still an inexperienced play-caller. He is still learning and developing, just as players do. With a full year of experience in that area, we should see a more creative and diverse offense. The offensive line is young and developing. They showed promise last year and should only improve with time.
Beyond the internal improvement, this is an excellent year to add talent to the Lions’ backfield. This 2017 draft class is deep and full of players that could contribute for Detroit immediately. I don’t think that we will be adding a running back until the middle rounds, but there will be plenty of talent available when the middle rounds hit. Lions’ run game probably isn’t going to excite anyone next year, but it should certainly improve. Improving the running game will make everything more effective on offense and take some pressure off our talent-depleted defense.