Lions revamp line, restock backfield in effort to finally get run game off ground

Detroit News

It had been a triumphant end to a dismal season. The Detroit Lions went on the road and walloped the Green Bay Packers, 31-0, to end the 2018 campaign — a drop of sweetness to counter the otherwise overwhelmingly sour taste of Matt Patricia’s first year at the helm.  

The following day, Patricia’s season-ending news conference covered a lot of ground, including the future of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. While there were no answers that day — the two sides would part 24 hours later —  one of Patricia’s most-telling answers from the Q&A came when he was asked if the team’s offense needed to be modernized to keep pace with NFL trends.  

Patricia never had shied from sharing his football philosophies, but his succinct response provided the clearest insight to date regarding his views of what made for a successful offense.  

“You know what’s interesting? Watch through the playoffs — most of the teams that win in the playoffs are teams that run the ball and win the big games in the end,” Patricia responded. “I have been on good sides and bad sides of both of that. And teams that can run the ball, stop the run, control the game towards the end of the season are really, I think, the teams that will have the most chance to win.  

“The passing game is certainly dynamic, the spread offenses, the things that we have to see and deal with, the RPO systems, the different developments in college that come up and infiltrate into our league are certainly things that we all have to deal with,” Patricia continued. “But, there is a fundamental philosophy that I do believe with the run game and stopping the run and covering kicks that is true and so far, that has held true so far through the course of the season.” 

Prophetically, it was Patricia’s former team, the New England Patriots, that would emerge as the champions that year. In the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in history, the Patriots held the high-octane Los Angeles Rams to 62 rushing yards on 18 carries, while racking up 154 yards on 32 carries of their own.  

Further inspiration for Patricia’s offensive vision could be drawn from a pair of teams that made deep runs into the playoffs last season, the Tennessee Titans and San Francisco 49ers. Those two teams averaged 5.0 and 4.6 yards per carry, respectively. The latter even held a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl.  

Looking at the Lions, there have been some hiccups, but the team has done a relatively solid job stopping the run during Patricia’s tenure. In 2018, after a rocky start, they were one of the best teams in the NFL down the stretch, particularly following the midseason acquisition of Damon “Snacks” Harrison. And in 2019, despite a 3-12-1 record, the defense’s 4.1 yards per carry allowed tied for eighth in the league.  

But running the ball successfully? That’s eluded the Lions for years. In fact, it’s pretty easy to make a case there hasn’t been a franchise less successful moving the ball on the ground than Detroit since Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders abruptly retired in 1999.  

Up front, Detroit’s general manager Bob Quinn has been shaping and re-making the team’s offensive line since he arrived in 2016. He’s drafted seven offensive linemen in five years, including four in the first three rounds, while spending serious resources in free agency on the likes of Rick Wagner, T.J. Lang, and most recently, Halapoulivaati Vaitai. 

To date, the blocking hasn’t matched the investment. During Patricia’s two seasons, the Lions have averaged 2.2 and 2.1 yards before contact when running the ball, ranking in the bottom half of the league each time. Kerryon Johnson, the team’s starter when healthy last season, checked in at 1.6 yards. Only five backs across the league fared worse.  

Vaitai should help. According to Pro Football Focus, he was an above-average run blocker with the Eagles a year ago. Via their grading system, he ranked ninth among all offensive tackles. He replaces Wagner, who was below average in that department all three seasons with the Lions (and the previous two with Baltimore). Using the same grading system, he checked in at 56th as a run blocker among tackles with at least 400 snaps.  

As for the actual ball carriers, you won’t find many teams who have invested more in their backfield than Detroit’s two second-round picks — Johnson and incoming rookie D’Andre Swift. But just for good measure, the GM is swinging for the fences late in the game, adding Adrian Peterson to the mix. At the very least, it provides insurance for Johnson’s durability issues while answering the question of the go-to option on third-and-short or goal line situations.  

So could this be the year it all comes together? History can make you understandably jaded to that question, but players and coaches will tell you every year is different. And this season is no exception, with Vaitai, Swift, Peterson and third-round draft pick Jonah Jackson at guard. That’s a lot of change for yet another run at solving an issue that’s lingered for two decades.  

Maybe this time, the Lions finally won’t get stuffed at the line.  

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

Not so grand

Reggie Bush was the last Lions running back to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing, collecting 1,006 in 2013. Before that, it was Kevin Jones, who rushed for 1,133 yards in 2004. Here’s a look at the Lions’ leading rushers since Jones’ 2004 season:

2005: Kevin Jones, 664 yards (3.6 yards per carry)

2006: Kevin Jones, 689 (3.8)

2007: Kevin Jones, 581 (3.8)

2008: Kevin Smith, 976 (4.1)

2009: Kevin Smith, 747 (3.4)

2010: Jahvid Best, 555 (3.2)

2011: Jahvid Best, 390 (4.6)

2012: Mikel Leshoure, 798 (3.7)

2013: Reggie Bush, 1,006 (4.5)

2014: Joique Bell, 860 (3.9)

2015: Ameer Abdullah, 597 (4.2)

2016: Theo Riddick, 357 (3.9)

2017: Ameer Abdullah, 552 (3.3)

2018: Kerryon Johnson, 641 (5.4)

2019: Kerryon Johnson, 403 (3.6)

Ground zero

Where the Lions rank (out of 32 NFL teams) as a running team, since 2011, the last time Detroit finished in the top half of the NFL in either total rushing or yards per carry.

Season  Yards     Rank      YPC        Rank

2019      1,649     21st        4.1         22nd     

2018      1,660     23rd        4.1         28th

2017      1,221     32nd        3.4         32nd

2016      1,310     30th        3.7         27th

2015      1,335     32nd        3.8         27th

2014      1,422     28th        3.6         30th

2013      1,792     17th        4.0         22nd

2012      1,613     23rd        4.1         20th

2011      1,523     29th        4.3         14th      

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