As we continue with our 2016 Detroit Lions NFL season preview, today, we look at the running back position with this squad. It is no secret that the Lions have not had a great – or in some years – even decent running game since the days of Barry Sanders. Barry Sanders retired in 1999, so it has definitely been a while.
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will need a consistent running game more than ever before with the departure of Calvin Johnson at the wide receiver position. Last year, the carries alternated between local product of Wayne State University Joique Bell & last year’s second round pick Ameer Abdullah. Theo Riddick & Abdullah were used more in catching the ball out of the backfield, very similar to how Reggie Bush was used during his time with the Lions.
The numbers weren’t impressive, however. Bell rushed for only 311 yards on the season, Abdullah ran for 595 yards, Riddick rushed for 133 yards & Zach Zenner ran for 60 yards. Between all four of the running back, the team barely reached 1,100 yards on the ground. That has to improve drastically if the Lions are going to be able to move the ball consistently & make sure teams have to play a bit more balanced.
As it sits right now, defenses will most likely play in zone or cover 2 defenses to make sure the Lions passing game doesn’t destroy them with taking the top off the defense; the defenses will do everything to make sure most of the offense comes from bubble screens & slant passes that at the most can get 10-15 yards but keep the ball & player in front of the defense. With having Golden Tate & Marvin Jones being the top receivers now, the Lions don’t have anyone who can truly take the top off the defense, making it easier to play the Lions honest without the threat of a running game with a guy who can take it to the house on any play.
Of the running backs on the roster, Abdullah is the player that has the true breakaway speed & can make defenders miss. Abdullah also showed he could catch the ball well out of the backfield, catching 25 passes last season, which could be important to Stafford if he needs to dump the ball off out of the backfield or have an easy checkdown when the top options are covered. In the first game of the season in San Diego, we saw the future of Abdullah, possibly. He broke a massive run for a touchdown that reminded people of Barry Sanders very quickly. The expectations were ratcheted up quite a bit, but he quickly came back to Earth.
In the new NFL, there will be carries distributed between various running backs, but with a year under his belt, Abdullah will be counted on to be more of a factor in the passing & running game, especially if Bell does not re-sign with the Lions before training camp. Abdullah will be counted on much more in pass protection, which is a tough area for a rookie to pick up on early in his NFL career because of the sophisticated blitz schemes that are used to get to the quarterback.
Bell, however, has an uncertain future with the Lions. Bell was not re-signed right after the NFL offseason began & so far, it doesn’t look like many offers have come in around the league for his services. Bell is a bruising back that can score touchdowns, but in many ways, he is a feel good story that might only be really good & valuable in Detroit. With so many running backs, when they break down, they break down fast. Unfortunately, we saw that quite a bit with Bell last season. If the Lions don’t make a move soon, see Bell probably stay unsigned or sign with the team after the season begins.
Which then brings us to Theo Riddick. Riddick is a great pass catcher, but only decent as a running back at the NFL level. Expect the Lions to use Riddick in the slot receiver position quite a bit during the season, due to his catching ability. Riddick can spell Abdullah a bit, and will most likely be counted on more to take on carries if Bell is not resigned at all in 2016. The area where Riddick will have to be better is making sure that in goal line situations he can be able to move the pile a bit & get into the end zone, a situation that Bell was very strong in.
That brings us to Zach Zenner. Zenner is going into his third year from South Dakota State. Does he have great stats? No, not at all. But can he be a weapon should he make the roster out of training camp? Absolutely. Zenner is 5’11”, 226 lbs & can be the replacement for Bell on the 3rd down, short yardage & goal line situations. With Zenner’s size, he could be used as a fullback in many situations if he is on the roster & open up holes for the rest of the running game or be used as an extra pass blocker for Matthew Stafford to have time to get the ball down the field.
The offense will be going through the running game much more this season as Stafford will not have all of the high-powered pass weapons on the outside that he is has been used to. With a retooled offensive line, the running game should be better, as long as there isn’t as much trying to bounce as many runs to the outside & focus on being a north/south running team.
We see the team having around 1,200 to 1,400 yards if they can keep games close or be ahead, thus not having to completely focus on the passing game to keep them involved. Balance is going to be a playcalling trait that Head Coach Jim Caldwell will have to be diligent on this year & a great running game is only going to make Matthew Stafford more of an elite quarterback when corners & safeties have to press more and be honest.