The Detroit Lions’ Running Game Struggles Once Again, But This Time There Is Reason For Optimism.
Detroit Lions’ Running Game
The Lions only managed three yards per carry against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. This is obviously not what you like to see out of a Lions’ running game that was supposed to significantly improve on their abysmal showing in 2016. That said, the stat line doesn’t give us the whole picture here. The Lion’s running game, while ultimately ineffective in terms of production, had some positive takeaways that fans can look to for optimism going forward.
Ameer Abdullah, the clear focal point of the Detroit Lions’ running game, ran for only 30 yards on 15 carries, managing a meager two yards per carry. There are a few clear positives to Ameer’s performance.
The first thing that is nice to see is that Ameer Abdullah is clearly healthy. He looks to be ready to roll and shows no signs of any lingering effects of last year’s injury. It is still week one, and there is plenty of time for Abdullah to get banged up over the course of the year, but he looks healthy to start the season. That’s about all you can ask for after an injury that had many fans concerned for his long-term effectiveness.
The second major positive takeaway from week one is that Ameer received a respectable workload. He didn’t get 20+ carries, but that probably wouldn’t be a common occurrence for any running back in this Detroit Lions’ offense. The Lions are a passing team, and they will likely be that way for the foreseeable future. Fifteen carries for Abdullah shows a vote of confidence from the coaches.
It also shows a renewed dedication to the run game, something that the Lions haven’t had in years. While running the ball wasn’t necessarily effective this game, it kept the Lions from being one-dimensional and contributed to the Matthew Stafford‘s success in the passing game.
The Lions used Ameer Abdullah on a lot of stretch run plays and outside zones. Abdullah excels in space. He isn’t necessarily the fastest back, but his strengths are making people miss in space and utilizing his explosiveness. This lends very well to the types of plays that the Lions were running against Arizona. It’s good to see the Lions utilize their players strengths, rather than force them into unfavorable situations.
While the overall volume and type of usage of Ameer Abdullah was encouraging, this wasn’t the best match up for what the Lions were trying to do. Those stretch plays basically ask the running back to “stretch” the play to the sideline until they find a seam. Then they get up field and explode through the hole and work on the linebackers at the second level.
The problem this week is that Arizona has a very fast defense at the second and third level that reacts quickly. This defense is built to stop plays like those zones. With athleticism after the defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs can get to the corner and wash plays out all the way to the sideline. This was the case more often than not in Sunday’s game.
These plays should improve as the Lions face defenses that aren’t as athletic as the Arizona Cardinals.
Dwayne Washington was actually the most effective back of the Lions’ running game. That’s something that I don’t think many people would have expected going into this year. Washington, while he didn’t set the world on fire, certainly looked improved over what we saw from him last year.
He looks a lot better at making lateral moves and being patient through the hole. He was a raw athletic prospect last year. Washington needed to improve on his overall polish, and appears to have done so.
Washington was used as the primary between-the-tackles runner. This is where the Lions matched up best in the running game. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Lions attacked between the tackles more effectively than they did the edge. Washington averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, which is still not ideal, but it is adequate for what is not the focal point of the Lions’ running game.
Riddick ran the ball only once, and lost a yard. Riddick has never been great as a true running back. His strength is in the passing game, so it is not surprising to see him get limited usage in the run game. The problem with Theo Riddick a couple of years ago is that he became a predictable piece in the offense.
Having only one carry doesn’t help keep the defense guessing, but Riddick got most of his work in clear passing situations, so it didn’t end up affecting things too much.
Lions’ Running Game Going Forward
The Lions are likely going to be a team that passes to set up the run. The Lions struggled early in the passing game, and that didn’t help to set up the run. With a faster start to the passing game, the Lions should likely be able to have better early success with the run game.
The Lions face some tough defenses this year, especially early in the season. It may be a few weeks before fans see a significant improvement in the rushing game, but not many teams are going to be as well equipped to stretch out the Lions’ outside rushes like the Arizona Cardinals, so we should expect to see at least moderate improvement in that area.
The Lions need to become less predictable in their play calling. They cannot continue to use each of their backs in rigid roles. While Abdullah excels in space and on the outside, the coaching staff has to mix it up, they can’t just decide to only run him outside. Washington, the biggest back the Lions use, can’t just be a between the tackles back. The Lions have to have some semblance of variety with their usage of their backs, otherwise it is too easy to key off.
Play calling variety has been an issue for Jim Bob Cooter in the past, but he is still a young offensive coordinator, I expect that he will make changes as the season progresses and he gets more experience.
While ultimately unproductive, the dedication to the run game, was encouraging. There are plenty of reasons to believe that the Lions’ running game will improve as the season progresses and should be drastically improved over what fans witnessed last year.