To continue with our series on what is wrong with the Detroit Lions offense, we will look at the running game, or lack there of it. Detroit has not had a good rushing attack since Barry Sanders retired. The Lions have been through several running backs from James Stewart to Kevin Jones and Kevin Smith to Reggie Bush. They have had 1000 yard rushers just four times since Sanders retired prior to the 1999 season. They currently have one running back on the roster who has had 1000 yards rushing in a season and that is Reggie Bush, who did it last year. So the question is, what is wrong with the rushing game? The simple answer is to look at the play of the offensive line. The offensive line was the sole reason for their great play last season and their poor play this season. The entire blame is not on the offensive line though. The schemes on offense and the effectiveness of the passing game play into it as well. We are going to start by looking at the statistics from last year to this year to see if there really is a problem with the running game.
After 8 games in the 2013 season, the Lions had 785 yards rushing as a team. They had 4 games out of 8 where they had rushed for over 100 yards in a game. Through the first 8 games in 2014, The Lions have 637 total yards rushing. They have had two out of 8 games with more than 100 yards rushing. The running gave has been virtually non-existent and is not threatening to any team. They do not have to stack the box to stop the run, although they have stacked the box. They rush the passer knowing Detroit will not successfully run the ball. Teams worry solely about pass rushing and pass coverage. Naturally, this is a formula for disaster.
Looking back at the play pictured on the left, we see 7 Chicago defenders in the box. In this 2013 play, Detroit had 6 blockers to Chicago’s 7 defenders. you can also see that there were two double teams planned on this play, meaning that the Lions were relying heavily on Reggie Bush to make people miss in open space. The outcome here was that the offensive line flowed to the left side (right from this angle) and caught some of Chicago’s players drifting to the same side. When players are already moving in one direction, it is very difficult to change directions, especially while being blocked. Now, as seen here, they are hoping to catch Chicago’s number 50 and 55 in the wash with their zone blocking scheme and it works. Bears defender number 50 is so far out of position that even a stutter step to his right is enough to take him out of the play. Number 94 is rushing so the flow of the play should take him out as well. If number 55 stays in his lane, he stops the play. He over pursued on the run and the counter worked. Bush cut back through a gaping hole in the middle and ran past everyone for an easy touchdown. Plays like this have been virtually non-existent in the Lions 2014 offense. The team is more focused on the traditional style of play and it is causing for missed opportunities.
In this season’s version of the offense, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is relying on pure power to gain rushing yards. He brought in a fullback to block in place of the tight end. The tight end is more of a glorified receiver, thus leaving more chance for the defense to blow up running plays before they start. Now, Detroit has been good at icing games with their running games which is confusing. The hardest time to run the ball is when the defense knows you are going to do it. Yet, that seems to be the only time Detroit has been able to do it. The next image we are going to see shows how the passing game has effected the running game.
In this image, we see that Chicago is stacking 7 in the box again. The difference here is that Calvin Johnson is sitting at the bottom of the image. With Johnson’s ability to change games, the Bears need to account for him with more than just Charles Tillman. The safeties are back deep to prevent getting burned for a deep 6 by Johnson. With the safeties so far back, the linebackers are keeping an eye on tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler. This creates just enough hesitation in them for Reggie Bush to take advantage of. On this play, Bush bursts through a nice hole provided by the offensive line and is able to gain about 20 before the safeties come up to make the play. Without Calvin Johnson, the safeties likely play right around the 45 yard line and stuff the run for a 4 or 5 yard gain. Because of the effectiveness of the passing game, especially from Johnson, the Bears overcompensate on the pass coverage and allow themselves to be gashed all day on the ground. The Lions finished this game with 159 yards on the ground. This was not the only instance of solid running by the Lions that season. They put up 241 yards against Green Bay on Thanksgiving. Linehan’s game plan worked out so well that the run and pass games complemented each other creating the perfect amount of balance for the offense.
Looking at 2014, the offense has had to play without Calvin Johnson for 3 full games and he was limited in two other games. With Johnson on the sidelines, teams have played more to stop the run, blitz Stafford and force poor throws. Given how close some of the games were this season, you would think the team would have run the ball more, thus increasing the total rush yardage on the season, but this has not been the case. Jim Caldwell has emphasized the need for the run game and has continued to push it forward even though it has been ineffective. If the Lions want to move the ball on the ground like they did last year, Caldwell, Lombardi and the rest of the staff should review last season’s game tapes, look at what worked, and play to the strengths of the offensive line and running backs. Getting players like Bush and Bell in space is only going to increase the offensive production and help build up their glaring weakness in time for a playoff run.
In our final article of the series, we will look at the passing game and how it has performed this season versus last season. There are some noticeable differences there from last year to this year, even from the first game of the season to the rest of this season. Please check back as we wrap up this series covering the passing game and Matthew Stafford.