Film review: Detroit Lions have big plans for rookie RB D’Andre Swift

Detroit Free Press

D’Andre Swift’s dropped touchdown pass with 6 seconds to play in last week’s loss to the Chicago Bears overshadowed an otherwise promising debut.

Swift has to catch that pass, there are no two ways about it, even if Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia came to his defense Monday.

“He’s a great player, he’s a great guy, he’s going to come to work, he’s going to keep pushing forward and to think that we didn’t win the game because of his play is totally inaccurate,” Patricia said. “Obviously, it’s just one of many plays from that aspect of it. We can’t do that to a really good young player. And I think if anybody tries to do that to a really good young player, then you run the risk of that guy actually believing that and that’s not the case.”

A second-round pick out of Georgia, Swift did not up put gaudy Week 1 numbers like some of his rookie counterparts. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the only running back drafted ahead of Swift, leads the NFL with 138 yards rushing after one week, and J.K. Dobbins, a fellow second-round pick, scored two touchdowns.

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But while Swift totaled just 23 yards from scrimmage on three carries and three receptions, the Lions used their rookie running back in ways that suggests they have a big things planned for him in the near future.

After studying all 78 offensive snaps from the TV copy of Sunday’s game (coaches film was not available on GamePass as of mid-day), I came away impressed not just with Swift but with the Lions’ running game as a whole.

Kerryon Johnson started and played 20 snaps, the bulk of which came at the start of the first and third quarters. Johnson finished with seven carries for 14 yards, but he had a couple nice runs early in the second half and lost 2 yards in the fourth quarter when T.J. Hockenson whiffed on a block.

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Johnson is clearly the back the Lions trust the most in pass protection. He was their primary third-down back Sunday, playing on five of their first seven third downs outside of a two-minute drill late in the first half, and had six snaps where he either stayed in to block completely or offered chip help on the edge.

Adrian Peterson was the Lions’ primary ball carrier Sunday, and is a good bet to have that role going forward. Peterson led the Lions with 93 yards on 14 carries and showed some of the vision and power that have made him a future Hall-of-Famer.

He caught three passes out of the backfield, and to no one’s surprise, after just a week of practice, was not used at all as a blocker.

I don’t foresee much more being added to either Johnson or Peterson’s plates. The Lions do have concerns about Johnson’s surgically-repaired knee, so he probably won’t be in line for 20-plus touches a game. But he does know the system better than both of his counterparts and is a willing blocker, and that counts for plenty in the NFL.

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Peterson, likewise, is here because of his rushing ability. He’s never been regarded as a great blocker, but he still can pick tough yards at 35 years old, and he showed Sunday he still can break off chunk runs, too.

Swift, far and away, is the back with the most upside on the Lions’ roster, not just in terms of potential but in terms of usage.

The Lions worked something of a running back rotation Sunday, playing Johnson for a series and a half, then Peterson for most of a series and a half, then Swift.

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Swift was billed as a dynamic receiving option coming out of Georgia, and the Lions are in tune with those skills. By my count, he ran pass routes on 20 of his 34 snaps against the Bears and lined up in the backfield and split wide of the numbers on both sides of the field.

Though he caught just three passes for 15 yards Sunday, Swift was the primary receiving option on at least three other plays — and was open on a fourth that might have gone for a touchdown had Matthew Stafford thrown his way.

In the first quarter, Swift replaced Peterson for two red zone snaps after the Lions reached the Bears’ 9-yard line. On the first, he ran a circle route out of the backfield and ended up in close to the same spot as rookie wide receiver Quintez Cephus. I don’t know if Swift ran a wrong route — it’s possible he was supposed to go to the flat — or was just a secondary option on the play, but Stafford threw Cephus’ way (and Cephus dropped the ball) even though Swift appeared to have more separation from his defender.

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In the second quarter, the Lions had a key third-and-2 just after the two minute-warning and they called a play designed for Swift. The rookie motioned left out of the backfield and ran a rub route with Cephus, but when Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson stayed home to defend Swift, Stafford tucked the ball and scrambled for 1 yard.

(I couldn’t help but wonder as I watched the play if the Bears would have played that differently had Kenny Golladay been in the game, or if Stafford would have thrown downfield had Cephus finished the pick by sprinting down the sideline.)

Swift had a drop on a tough third-and-12 swing pass in the third quarter, and then of course he had the big drop at the end.

That play, though, showed a glimpse of why the Lions were so excited Swift fell to them in the draft.

He played all 11 two-minute snaps on the Lions’ final drive (and seven more at the end of the first half, which is why he out-snapped both Peterson and Johnson for the game) and was lined up left of Stafford on that key second-and-10 play with 11 seconds left in the game.

Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan was in coverage around the 12-yard line, and Swift simply ran by him on a corner route towards the pylon. Stafford’s pass hit Swift in the hands, and Swift appeared to turn his head slightly before tucking the ball away. When it fell to the ground, he did, too, in stunned disbelief.

“He had a great day out there his first game,” Peterson said on video conference after the game. “As a rookie, he showed up, he made plays, made some good head-up plays on different situations that he was in there on. But I just pulled him to the side and told him, ‘Hey, it’s all about how you respond to this. Don’t let this get you down.’ I can imagine how he feels in that situation, how he must feel. But at the end of the day, what he showed me today, is that he’s going to be able to help us.”

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Unlike Johnson and Peterson, Swift appears to have plenty of room to expand his role. The Lions did ask him to block on four snaps, but three of those came on the final drive and they purposely motioned him into the fourth as part of a sliding offensive line protection. Once he’s more comfortable with pass protections, whether it’s this year or down the road, he can be a valuable weapon on third down.

As a runner, too, Swift has more to give. His long gain of 6 yards would have went for more had fullback Jason Cabinda, who had a nice day overall, not missed a block. And Stafford probably should have given the ball to Swift once more when he opted to keep it on a zone-read that went for 1 yard.

“I know with no preseason not as many people have seen it, but this guy’s going to make a lot of plays for us,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “Young guy, super talented, he’s going to make a ton of plays for us and we’re all going to rally around him. I know he’s probably a little in the dumps about that (drop), but we have all the confidence in the world in him cause he’s going to be a weapon for us. He’s going to help us win games.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Lions content. 

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